396 F.3d 579 (4th Cir. 2005), 04-4311, United States v. Smith

Docket Nº:04-4311.
Citation:396 F.3d 579
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Dennis Deon SMITH, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:February 10, 2005
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

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396 F.3d 579 (4th Cir. 2005)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,


Dennis Deon SMITH, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 04-4311.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

February 10, 2005

Argued: Dec. 3, 2004

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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William Stimson Trivette, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Office of the Federal Public Defender, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellant.

Michael Francis Joseph, Assistant United States Attorney, Office of the United States Attorney, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellee.


Louis C. Allen, III, Federal Public Defender, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellant.

Anna Mills Wagoner, United States Attorney, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellee.

Before WILKINS, Chief Judge, and NIEMEYER and DUNCAN, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed by published opinion. Chief Judge Wilkins wrote the opinion, in which Judge Niemeyer and Judge Duncan joined.


Dennis Deon Smith appeals a district court order denying his motion to suppress evidence obtained by police following an investigatory stop of his vehicle. Because the officers possessed reasonable suspicion to stop Smith's vehicle, we affirm.


During the early morning of March 19, 2003, Durham, North Carolina police officers established a driver's license checkpoint on Highway 54. The checkpoint, which was established in response to numerous break-ins and traffic violations in the area, was located at the bottom of a small hill and was operated by five officers, each with a patrol vehicle, from around 2:00 a.m. until shortly after 3:00 a.m. During this time, the police lights on each patrol vehicle were activated, and all motorists traveling in either direction were stopped.

At approximately 3:05 a.m., a vehicle traveling west on Highway 54 crested the hill about 985 feet from the checkpoint. According to the officers, the vehicle "appeared to slam on its brakes," J.A. 24, 55, because its headlights "dipped down toward the ground," id. at 55. The officers then observed the vehicle turn left onto a private gravel driveway leading to a single residence. The entrance to the driveway was located about 810 feet from the checkpoint.

Based on these observations, Officer Clyde McCoy drove his patrol vehicle to the driveway to investigate. When McCoy turned into the driveway, he observed that the suspect vehicle, a Lexus sedan, was stopped just before a sharp left curve in the driveway, approximately 240 feet from the highway. Either before or after entering the driveway, McCoy activated his police lights.1 Rather than remaining

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stopped, however, the Lexus "proceeded slowly around the curve." Id. at 26. When McCoy drove around the curve, he saw the Lexus stopped at the end of the driveway with its lights off.2

McCoy pulled up behind the Lexus and exited his patrol vehicle. He then approached the Lexus and asked its driver and only occupant, Smith, for his driver's license. Smith responded that he did not have a license. McCoy asked Smith if he lived at the residence; Smith replied that he did not. Smith told McCoy that he had turned off of the highway "because he saw the patrol vehicles down the street and thought there was an accident." Id. McCoy asked Smith to step out of his vehicle and handcuffed him. After verifying by radio that Smith's license had been revoked, McCoy placed Smith under arrest.

A second police officer who had followed McCoy to the scene then asked Smith for permission to search the Lexus. Smith replied that "he didn't care, it wasn't his vehicle." Id. at 60. Police searched the vehicle and discovered a loaded magazine for a 9-millimeter handgun and a small quantity of cocaine base. After advising Smith of his Miranda rights,3 officers asked him about the weapon to which the magazine belonged. Smith responded that he had thrown a handgun out of the vehicle near the entrance to the driveway. Although the officers found no handgun in the area Smith described, they eventually recovered a Ruger 9-millimeter pistol near the Lexus at the end of the driveway. Smith was then transported to the police station. After receiving his Miranda warnings in writing, Smith stated that the pistol belonged to a friend who had died and that he kept the weapon because he was uncertain what to do with it.

Smith was subsequently charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, see 18 U.S.C.A. § 922(g) (1) (West 2000). He pleaded not guilty and moved to suppress the evidence obtained following the vehicle stop, arguing that the officers lacked reasonable suspicion to justify the stop. The district court held that the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop Smith's vehicle because it (1) turned abruptly into a private driveway before reaching the police checkpoint and (2) moved--from a stopped position--around the curve of the driveway "as far as it could go," J.A. 83, in response to McCoy's police lights. The court concluded that based on the totality of the circumstances, the officers reasonably suspected that Smith was attempting to avoid the police checkpoint to conceal his involvement in criminal activity. The district court therefore denied Smith's motion to suppress.

Smith subsequently entered a conditional guilty plea pursuant to a plea agreement. The district court sentenced Smith to 60 months in prison.


Smith contends that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress, arguing that the stop of his vehicle violated the Fourth Amendment because the officers lacked reasonable suspicion that he was engaged in criminal activity. Whether the stop of Smith's vehicle was based on reasonable suspicion is a mixed

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question of law and fact that we review de novo. See Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 699, 116 S.Ct. 1657, 134 L.Ed.2d 911 (1996).

The Fourth Amendment prohibits "unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. And, it is well settled that a search conducted without a warrant is per se unreasonable unless it falls within one of the "well-delineated exceptions" to the warrant requirement. Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357, 88 S.Ct. 507, 19 L.Ed.2d 576 (1967). One such exception is the authority of law enforcement officers to effect a limited investigatory detention when they possess "a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the person seized is engaged in criminal activity." Reid v. Georgia, 448 U.S. 438, 440, 100 S.Ct. 2752, 65 L.Ed.2d 890 (1980) (per curiam); see Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21-22, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). A reasonable, articulable suspicion is " 'a particularized and objective basis' for suspecting the person stopped of criminal activity." Ornelas, 517 U.S. at 696, 116 S.Ct. 1657 (quoting United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417, 101 S.Ct. 690, 66 L.Ed.2d 621 (1981)). In determining whether a detention is supported by reasonable suspicion, we look to the circumstances known to the officer and "the specific reasonable inferences which he is entitled to draw from the facts in light of his experience." Terry, 392 U.S. at 27, 88 S.Ct. 1868. In so doing, we must consider "the totality of the circumstances--the whole picture." Cortez, 449 U.S. at 417, 101 S.Ct. 690.


Emphasizing the general principle that individuals have a right to avoid encounters with the police, see, e.g., United States v. Burton, 228 F.3d 524, 527, 528-29 (4th Cir. 2000), Smith asserts that a motorist "should be free to avoid a police encounter at [a] roadblock by stopping and turning around, so long as he does so legally." Br. of Appellant at 21. Smith argues that a motorist's legal turn to avoid a police roadblock cannot create reasonable suspicion of criminal activity because the driver may be turning away from the roadblock for innocent reasons. By contrast, the Government maintains that when police reasonably suspect that a driver is attempting to avoid a roadblock, they may stop the driver to ascertain the reason for that avoidance.

We find instructive the decision of the Supreme Court in Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 120 S.Ct. 673, 145 L.Ed.2d 570 (2000). In Wardlow, two Chicago police officers were part of a police caravan patrolling a high-crime area investigating drug transactions. See Wardlow, 528 U.S. at 121, 120 S.Ct. 673. One officer observed Wardlow standing next to a building holding an opaque bag. See id. at 121-22, 120 S.Ct. 673. Wardlow looked in the officers' direction and fled. See id. at 122, 120 S.Ct. 673. The officers followed Wardlow in their patrol vehicle and eventually stopped him. See id. Upon conducting a protective patdown search of Wardlow, the officers discovered a loaded handgun in Wardlow's bag and arrested him. See id. After moving unsuccessfully to suppress the handgun, Wardlow was convicted of a weapons charge in Illinois state court. See id. The Illinois appellate courts, however, reversed Wardlow's conviction on Fourth Amendment grounds, holding that the weapon should have been suppressed because the officers lacked reasonable suspicion to stop Wardlow. See id. at 122-23, 120 S.Ct. 673.

The Supreme Court reversed. The Court initially noted that Wardlow's presence in a high-crime area, while not dispositive, was a relevant factor in the reasonable

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suspicion analysis. See id. at 124, 120 S.Ct. 673. The Court explained that "officers are not required to ignore the relevant characteristics of a location in determining whether the circumstances are sufficiently suspicious to warrant further investigation." Id. More importantly, the Court recognized, the officers became suspicious of Wardlow based on "his unprovoked flight upon noticing the police." Id. Noting that "nervous, evasive behavior is a pertinent factor in determining reasonable suspicion," the Court emphasized that "[h]eadlong flight--wherever it occurs--is the consummate act of evasion: It is...

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