United States v. Robinson

Decision Date23 January 2017
Docket NumberNo. 14-4902,14-4902
Citation846 F.3d 694
Parties UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff–Appellee, v. Shaquille Montel ROBINSON, Defendant–Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

ARGUED: Nicholas Joseph Compton, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Martinsburg, West Virginia, for Appellant. Thomas Ernest Booth, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, D.C., for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Kristen M. Leddy, Research and Writing Specialist, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Martinsburg, West Virginia, for Appellant. William J. Ihlenfeld, II, United States Attorney, Jarod J. Douglas, Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Wheeling, West Virginia, for Appellee.


Affirmed by published opinion. Judge Niemeyer wrote the majority opinion, in which Judge Wilkinson, Judge Traxler, Judge King, Judge Shedd, Judge Duncan, Judge Agee, Judge Keenan, Judge Diaz, Judge Floyd, and Judge Thacker joined. Judge Wynn wrote a separate opinion concurring in the judgment. Judge Harris wrote a dissenting opinion, in which Chief Judge Gregory, Judge Motz, and Senior Judge Davis joined.


NIEMEYER, Circuit Judge:

This appeal presents the question of whether a law enforcement officer is justified in frisking a person whom the officer has lawfully stopped and whom the officer reasonably believes to be armed, regardless of whether the person may legally be entitled to carry the firearm. Stated otherwise, the question is whether the risk of danger to a law enforcement officer created by the forced stop of a person who is armed is eliminated by the fact that state law authorizes persons to obtain a permit to carry a concealed firearm.

After receiving a tip that a man in a parking lot well known for drug-trafficking activity had just loaded a firearm and then concealed it in his pocket before getting into a car as a passenger, Ranson, West Virginia police stopped the car after observing that its occupants were not wearing seatbelts. Reasonably believing that the car's passenger, Shaquille Robinson, was armed, the police frisked him and uncovered the firearm, leading to his arrest for the possession of a firearm by a felon.

During his prosecution, Robinson filed a motion to suppress the evidence recovered as a result of the frisk, contending that the frisk violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The officers, he argued, had no articulable facts demonstrating that he was dangerous since, as far as the officers knew, the State could have issued him a permit to carry a concealed firearm. After the district court denied the motion to suppress, Robinson pleaded guilty to the illegal possession of a firearm, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress.

On appeal, Robinson contends again that the information that police received from the tip described seemingly innocent conduct and that his conduct at the time of the traffic stop also provided no basis for officers to reach the conclusion that he was dangerous. He argues, "Under the logic of the district court, in any state where carrying a firearm is a perfectly legal activity, every citizen could be dangerous, and subject to a Terry frisk and pat down."

We reject Robinson's argument and affirm, concluding that an officer who makes a lawful traffic stop and who has a reasonable suspicion that one of the automobile's occupants is armed may frisk that individual for the officer's protection and the safety of everyone on the scene. See Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 112, 98 S.Ct. 330, 54 L.Ed.2d 331 (1977) (per curiam). The Fourth Amendment does not "require ... police officers [to] take unnecessary risks in the performance of their duties." Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 23, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). And it is inconsequential that the person thought to be armed was a passenger. See Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408, 414, 117 S.Ct. 882, 137 L.Ed.2d 41 (1997). It is also inconsequential that the passenger may have had a permit to carry the concealed firearm. The danger justifying a protective frisk arises from the combination of a forced police encounter and the presence of a weapon, not from any illegality of the weapon's possession. See Adams v. Williams, 407 U.S. 143, 146, 92 S.Ct. 1921, 32 L.Ed.2d 612 (1972) ; Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 1052 n.16, 103 S.Ct. 3469, 77 L.Ed.2d 1201 (1983).


The material facts in this case are not disputed. At about 3:55 p.m. on March 24, 2014, an unidentified man called the Ranson, West Virginia Police Department and told Officer Crystal Tharp that he had just "witnessed a black male in a bluish greenish Toyota Camry load a firearm [and] conceal it in his pocket" while in the parking lot of the 7–Eleven on North Mildred Street. The caller advised Officer Tharp that the Camry was being driven by a white woman and had "just left" the parking lot, traveling south on North Mildred Street.

The 7–Eleven on North Mildred Street is adjacent to the Apple Tree Garden Apartments, and the area constitutes the highest crime area in Ranson. One officer who testified said that in his short one and a half years as a state trooper, he had experience with at least 20 incidents of drug trafficking in the 7–Eleven parking lot. Another officer testified that "when [she] was doing drug work[,] ... [she] dropped an informant off to buy drugs" at the 7–Eleven parking lot and observed "three other people waiting for drugs in that parking lot." She added that she had personally received "numerous complaints" of people running between the parking lot and the apartment complex, making drug transactions. Another officer testified that "[a]nytime you hear Apple Tree or 7–Eleven, your radar goes up a notch." Accordingly, when the Ranson Police Department received the tip about someone loading a gun in the 7–Eleven parking lot, its officers' "radar [went] up a notch," and the officers went "on heightened alert."

While still on the telephone with the caller, Officer Tharp relayed the information to Officer Kendall Hudson and Captain Robbie Roberts. Hudson immediately left the station to respond to the call, and Roberts left soon thereafter to provide backup.

When Officer Hudson turned onto North Mildred Street a short time later, he observed a blue-green Toyota Camry being driven by a white woman with a black male passenger. Noticing that they were not wearing seatbelts, Hudson effected a traffic stop approximately seven blocks, or three-quarters of a mile, south of the 7–Eleven. He estimated that the traffic stop took place two to three minutes after the call had been received at the station.

After calling in the stop, Officer Hudson approached the driver's side of the vehicle with his weapon drawn but carried below his waist and asked the driver for her license, registration, and proof of insurance. He also asked the male passenger, the defendant Robinson, for his identification but quickly realized that doing so was "probably not a good idea" because "[t]his guy might have a gun[,] [and] I'm asking him to get into his pocket to get his I.D." Instead, Officer Hudson asked Robinson to step out of the vehicle.

At this point, Captain Roberts arrived and opened the front passenger door. As Robinson was exiting the vehicle, Captain Roberts asked him if he had any weapons on him. Instead of responding verbally, Robinson "gave [Roberts] a weird look" or, more specifically, an " ‘oh, crap’ look[ ]." Roberts took the look to mean, "I don't want to lie to you, but I'm not going to tell you anything [either]." At this point, Captain Roberts directed Robinson to put his hands on top of the car and performed a frisk for weapons, recovering a loaded gun from the front pocket of Robinson's pants. After conducting the frisk, Roberts recognized Robinson, recalled that he had previously been convicted of a felony, and arrested him.

After Robinson was charged with the illegal possession of a firearm by a felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), he filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the firearm and ammunition seized during the frisk, arguing that the frisk violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

The district court denied the motion, concluding that the officers possessed reasonable suspicion to believe that Robinson was armed and dangerous. Relying on Navarette v. California, ––– U.S. ––––, 134 S.Ct. 1683, 188 L.Ed.2d 680 (2014), the court concluded that the anonymous caller's eyewitness knowledge and the contemporaneous nature of the report indicated that the tip was sufficiently reliable to contribute to the officers' reasonable suspicion. The court explained that the "anonymous tip that [Robinson] [had] recently loaded a firearm and concealed it on his person in a public parking lot in a high-crime area," as well as Robinson's "weird look and failure to verbally respond to the inquiry whether he was armed," gave rise to a reasonable suspicion that Robinson was armed and dangerous.

Robinson thereafter pleaded guilty to the firearm possession charge, reserving his right to appeal the district court's denial of his suppression motion, and the district court sentenced him to 37 months' imprisonment. Robinson appealed the denial of his motion to suppress, and a panel of this court reversed the district court's decision denying Robinson's motion to suppress and vacated his conviction and sentence. United States v. Robinson, 814 F.3d 201, 213 (4th Cir. 2016). By order dated April 25, 2016, we granted the government's petition for rehearing en banc, which vacated the panel's judgment and opinion. See 4th Cir. Local R. 35(c).


Robinson's appeal is defined as much by what he concedes as by what he challenges. Robinson rightfully acknowledges that the Ranson police had the right to stop the vehicle in which he...

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