945 F.3d 929 (5th Cir. 2019), 19-60087, United States v. Darrell

Docket Nº:19-60087
Citation:945 F.3d 929
Opinion Judge:PATRICK E. HIGGINBOTHAM, Circuit Judge:
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee v. Justin Harrington DARRELL, Defendant-Appellant
Attorney:Scott F. Leary, Esq., Assistant U.S. Attorney, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Northern District of Mississippi, Oxford, MS, for Plaintiff-Appellee. Gregory Scott Park, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Federal Public Defender’s Office, Northern District of Mississippi, Oxford, MS, for Defendant-Appellant.
Judge Panel:Before HIGGINBOTHAM, DENNIS, and HO, Circuit Judges. JAMES L. DENNIS, Circuit Judge, dissenting.
Case Date:December 23, 2019
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

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945 F.3d 929 (5th Cir. 2019)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee


Justin Harrington DARRELL, Defendant-Appellant

No. 19-60087

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

December 23, 2019

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, Neal B. Biggers, Jr., U.S. District Judge

Scott F. Leary, Esq., Assistant U.S. Attorney, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Northern District of Mississippi, Oxford, MS, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Gregory Scott Park, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Federal Public Defender’s Office, Northern District of Mississippi, Oxford, MS, for Defendant-Appellant.

Before HIGGINBOTHAM, DENNIS, and HO, Circuit Judges.



Justin Harrington Darrell was arrested and charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He entered a conditional guilty plea, and now challenges the legality of the stop that precipitated his arrest. Finding no constitutional infirmity, we affirm Darrell’s conviction and sentence.


On September 3, 2017, Alcorn County Sheriff’s Deputy Shane Latch and Farmington Police Department Officer Mike Billingsley drove to a home in Corinth, Mississippi.1 They intended to serve an arrest warrant on one of the home’s occupants, Brandy Smith, for failing to appear in court. Deputy Latch later described the residence as "a known drug house" where multiple arrests and disturbances— including a shooting— had taken place in the past. Indeed, Latch himself had made several arrests there.

As the uniformed officers pulled up to the house in two marked squad cars, they saw a black Chevrolet Camaro parked in the driveway. "Almost instantaneously," Appellant Justin Darrell exited the Camaro and began walking toward the back of the house. Officer Billingsley called out to Darrell and instructed him to stop, but Darrell ignored the command and continued walking away from the officers, now at an increased pace. Deputy Latch later testified that if Darrell had walked an additional fifteen to twenty feet, he would have

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been behind the house and outside the officers’ field of vision. Once out of their sight, the officers feared, Darrell might have withdrawn a concealed weapon or warned Ms. Smith of her impending apprehension— a crime under Mississippi law.2 Officer Billingsley again ordered Darrell to stop. This time, Darrell complied and began walking back toward the officers. Officer Billingsley took a brown paper bag from Darrell and handed it to Deputy Latch. Inside was a bottle of whiskey— contraband in dry Alcorn County.

Officer Billingsley then asked Deputy Latch to watch Darrell while Billingsley approached the door and attempted to apprehend Ms. Smith. Deputy Latch asked Darrell what his name was, but Darrell declined to answer.3 Deputy Latch then noticed two knives hooked onto Darrell’s belt. Latch confiscated the knives and asked Darrell if he had any other weapons. Although Darrell said no, Deputy Latch patted him down to be sure. As he did so, he felt an item in Darrell’s front pocket. He asked what it was, but Darrell did not answer. Latch later testified that "when [he] edged the pocket open," he "could see the butt end of [a] pistol." Latch then "pushed [Darrell] against the car and removed the weapon," which turned out to be a loaded semiautomatic pistol with its serial number obliterated. Darrell’s pocket also contained a substance believed to be methamphetamine. Deputy Latch handcuffed Darrell and placed him in a squad car.

Latch estimated that the officers’ entire encounter with Darrell lasted less than a minute. Only after Darrell had been handcuffed did the officers notice a man sitting in the passenger seat of the Camaro. He had not attempted to exit the vehicle or participated in any way in the confrontation. The officers asked the passenger to step outside, identified him as Donald Dunn, and arrested him on an outstanding warrant from the City of Farmington. Both men were transported to the Alcorn County Jail and held for investigation. A few days later, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics confirmed that Darrell was a convicted felon.4

In January 2018, Darrell was indicted for being a felon in possession of a firearm.5 He filed a motion to suppress, arguing that "law enforcement did not possess adequate reasonable suspicion to stop and subsequently search him." The district court denied Darrell’s motion following a hearing at which Deputy Latch was the sole witness called to testify, and Darrell entered a conditional guilty plea "reserving the right to appeal the ruling on the motion to suppress evidence." On January 7, 2019, Darrell was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment and a three-year term of supervised release. This appeal followed.



When evaluating a ruling on a motion to suppress, we "review[ ] questions

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of law de novo and findings of fact for clear error."6 All evidence is viewed "in the light most favorable to the party that prevailed" below— in this case, the Government.[7]


"Warrantless searches and seizures are ‘per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment— subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.’ "8 The Supreme Court carved out one such exception in Terry v. Ohio .9 Under Terry, if a law enforcement officer can point to specific, articulable facts that lead him to reasonably suspect "that criminal activity may be afoot," he may briefly detain an individual to investigate.10 In addition, if the officer reasonably believes that the individual is "armed and presently dangerous to the officer[ ] or to others, [he] may conduct a limited protective search for concealed weapons"— often called a "frisk."11

Generally, the legality of such stops "is tested in two parts": "Courts first examine whether the officer’s action was justified at its inception, and then inquire whether the officer’s subsequent actions were reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the stop."12 As Darrell challenges only "the justification of the initial seizure," not the scope of the ensuing search, we must answer only whether, under the totality of the circumstances, the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop Darrell as he approached Ms. Smith’s house.13

The precise contours of the reasonable-suspicion standard remain "somewhat abstract."14 Certainly, reasonable suspicion is a less demanding standard than probable cause or preponderance of the evidence, but the Supreme Court has "deliberately avoided reducing it to ‘a neat set of legal rules.’ "15 Instead, it has "described reasonable suspicion simply as ‘a particularized and objective basis’ for suspecting the person stopped of criminal activity."16 In short, while reasonable suspicion is not a "finely-tuned standard[ ],"17 it is well established that "the Fourth

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Amendment requires at least a minimal level of objective justification for making" an investigatory stop.18


The parties agree that Darrell was "seized," for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, when he complied with Officer Billingsley’s second command to stop.[19] The question is whether the officers had reasonable, articulable suspicion to stop him based on what they had observed up until that moment.20

The Government cites three key facts to support the stop. First, "Darrell exited his vehicle and attempted to flee the very moment officers pulled in behind him." Second, Darrell appeared to be heading toward the back of the house, where he could potentially "draw a gun or warn the occupants of the house." Finally, the location of the encounter— "a known drug house, where officers had made arrests and knew that a shooting had occurred"— put the officers on alert for dangerous or illegal activity. In short, "Darrell was told to stop ... because he walked away from officers, attempting to leave their field of vision, as soon as officers arrived at a known drug house to make an arrest." Darrell counters that his behavior was innocent and that the officers had nothing but a "mere hunch," not reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.


The Government relies almost exclusively on the Supreme Court’s opinion in Illinois v. Wardlow ,[21] so a detailed consideration of Wardlow must be the starting point of our analysis. In Wardlow, two uniformed Chicago police officers "were driving the last car of a four car caravan converging on an area known for heavy narcotics trafficking in order to investigate drug transactions."22 One of the officers noticed Wardlow standing next to a building "holding an opaque bag."23 Wardlow "looked in the direction of the officers and fled" down an alley before being cornered by the police cruiser.24 An officer patted Wardlow down and discovered a loaded handgun.[25] Like Darrell, Wardlow filed an unsuccessful motion to suppress and was ultimately convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm.26

The Supreme Court held 5-4 that the officers had reasonable, articulable suspicion that Wardlow was engaged in criminal

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activity. The majority relied on two salient facts to support its conclusion: (1) the stop took place in a high-crime area, and (2) Wardlow took off in an "unprovoked flight" as soon as he saw the approaching police cars.[27] The majority acknowledged that "[a]n individual’s presence in an area of expected criminal activity, standing alone, is not enough to support a reasonable, particularized suspicion that the person is committing a crime."[28] Neither, however, is an officer "required to ignore the relevant characteristics of a location in determining whether the circumstances are sufficiently suspicious to warrant further investigation."29 Likewise,...

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