People For the American Way

Trump Judges Affirm Decision Upholding Warrantless Stop and Frisk of African American Man: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

News and Analysis
Trump Judges Affirm Decision Upholding Warrantless Stop and Frisk of African American Man: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.

Trump Fourth Circuit Judges Allison Rushing and Marvin Quattlebaum affirmed a district court’s ruling that validated a police stop, search and arrest of an African American man despite a vigorous dissent.  The June 2020 case was U.S. v. Mitchell.

Police officers were dispatched to a bar in rural West Virginia because of a reported fight and assault. The caller also reported that someone had a gun, which is generally legal in the state. When police reached the scene, a bystander informed them that he saw a “black man” with “red pants” and a “black shirt” and a “firearm” about a block away.  No one had linked such a described person to any illegal activity. Almost immediately, officers identified James Anthony Mitchell, who  matched the description. He was stopped, found to be carrying a firearm, taken into custody, and when it was later learned that he had previously been convicted of a felony, he was arrested and charged with felony possession of a firearm.

Mitchell filed a motion to suppress the firearm, but the district court denied the motion. Mitchell appealed the denial to the Fourth Circuit.  In an opinion by Judge Rushing, joined by Judge Quattlebaum, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision below. Rushing claimed that the police had reasonable suspicion to stop Mitchell based on the “totality of the circumstances, ” including their conclusion that police could “reasonably infer” that Mitchell was involved in the fight because someone reported that someone there had a gun and the bystander provided a description of Mitchell, with a gun.

Judge James Wynn strongly dissented. Under the law, he emphasized, police must have “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that a person is connected to “criminal activity” in order to justify a stop and frisk. But the facts of this case, including the call to the police and the bystander’s statement, “contribute nothing” toward a finding of reasonable suspicion, Wynn went on, because “:hey do not specifically link Mitchell to any criminal activity.” The majority’s claim that police could “reasonably infer” that Mitchell was involved in the fight, Wynn pointed out, was “mere speculation” and there were no “specific and articulable facts,” as required by Supreme Court precedent, to justify the stop and frisk. Wynn also noted that in a case with “very similar facts,” the Fourth Circuit reversed the denial of a motion to suppress.

Overall, Judge Wynn explained, the majority’s ruling set a precedent that allows officers to stop and frisk someone “any time that individual is in the vicinity” of a crime and is described by “another person at the scene.” Mitchell was “simply a man with a gun near a disturbance,” Wynn noted. “That is not a crime in West Virginia,” Wynn emphasized, and “it is not enough to justify taking away his Fourth Amendment right to be free from a warrantless search.”

As a result of the decision by Judge Rushing and Judge Quattlebaum, however, that is exactly what happened to James Anthony Mitchell. And according to that ruling, a  stop and frisk in the Sixth Circuit is permissible of anyone who happens to be in the vicinity of a crime being committed, without regard to the details..

Note; The initial draft of this post was prepared by PFAW legal intern Oliver Telusma.