In 2019, federal and Texas law enforcement conducted a state-wide “roundup” of known gang members with outstanding warrants. Officer Martin Deleon, a thirty-two-year Corpus Christi Police Department veteran with twenty-eight years in the gang unit, led a team of about a dozen officers. Each team received a packet of fifteen to twenty subjects grouped geographically.
One subject in the Deleon team’s packet was described as a “Hispanic male” in the “area of Leopard and Up River.” The information stated the subject “may be in the area on a bicycle and that he had run from officers in the past on that bicycle.” It described the bicycle only as having “large handlebars.”
But the officers did not know anything about the bicycle’s color or condition or whether it had other identifiers like pegs or distinctive tires. Nor did the officers know the subject’s age, body type, or build; whether he had identifying marks or features; what he was last seen wearing; or when he was last seen in the area.
The officers searched for the subject in an apartment complex in the Leopard–Up River area but could not find him, so they left for another location. Officer Deleon and his partner drove in a marked patrol car down Old Robstown Road toward Up River Road, an area known for gang activity. They saw a man who fit the subject’s description riding a bicycle with large handlebars on the sidewalk approaching the intersection from the opposite side of Up River Road.
The suspect turned left, and the officers turned right, so they were traveling parallel on Up River, with a lane of oncoming traffic between them. The officers pulled alongside the suspect, and Deleon honked the horn and shouted, “stop, pull over!” The suspect asked, “Why?” and kept pedaling.
After the suspect traveled about seventy-five yards, the officers pulled ahead of him and blocked the sidewalk. The suspect laid his bicycle down, and the officers grabbed him. They placed him against the car and frisked him, finding a revolver on his waistband and ammunition in his pocket. They cuffed him and put him in their car.
The officers could not immediately identify their detainee. Deleon did not recall the name of the wanted gang member described in the packet. The team apparently had been looking for Jose Morales, “the third or fourth guy on the list.” The officers later learned that they had instead detained Andres Alvarez, a convicted felon, who himself had an outstanding warrant.
Alvarez conditionally pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, reserving his right to appeal the motion to suppress. The 5th reversed the trial court by granting his motion to suppress, vacated his conviction and sentence, and remanded the case for further proceedings.
A. Completed crimes vs. recent or ongoing crimes
We said in Vickers that whether an officer has reasonable suspicion to stop is answered from the facts known to the officer at the time. Relevant facts and considerations may include a description of a suspect, a suspect’s location and proximity to known or reported criminal activity, the timeliness of information or the stop, a suspect’s behavior, and the officer’s experience. See U.S. Supreme Court case Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119 (2000).
A general, imprecise physical description of a suspect, standing alone, is insufficient to support reasonable suspicion. For example, in United States v. Jones, 619 F.2d 494 (5th Cir. 1980), an officer stopped a man matching “the general description that he had heard over the police radio the day before” of “a black male, 5 feet 6 inches to 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighing between 150 and 180 pounds, with a medium afro hair style, who was wearing jeans and a long denim jacket.” (The information reported by the police radio was in fact five weeks old) We found no reasonable suspicion because the officer “acted on the basis of an incomplete and stale description of a suspect that could, plainly, have fit many people.”
Similarly, in United States v. Rias, 524 F.2d 118 (5th Cir. 1975), an officer stopped two black males in a black Chevrolet, knowing that “two black males in a black or blue Chevrolet were suspects in a series of Farm Store robberies” a few weeks prior. We held the facts “clearly did not rise to the required level, and in reality were so tenuous as to provide virtually no grounds whatsoever for suspicion,” because “the officer was unsure whether the automobile used in the robberies was black or blue; the only description of the robbers was that they were black males; and it was not unusual for blacks to be seen in the area.
A less specific description may support reasonable suspicion where there is temporal and geographic proximity to recent criminal activity. In Vickers, officers received a report of a recent burglary by a “black male last seen wearing red shirt, blue or black shorts.” We held the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop a man “wearing clothing that met the description” found “75 to 100 yards from the burglarized home.”
Similarly, in United States v. Hall, 557 F.2d 1114 (5th Cir. 1977), a police dispatch reported an armed robbery by three men—two black and one either black with a light complexion or white—who fled in a red 1969 two-door Ford. An officer stopped “a red 1969 Ford driven by a light complexioned black male, proceeding away from the vicinity of a bank robbery within twenty minutes after the robbery.” We upheld the stop, emphasizing that “the most important factors” were “the timing of the initial stop and its location.”
Accordingly, our case law distinguishes between stops related to completed crimes and stops related to ongoing crimes or crimes very recently committed.
B. Information is general and vague
This case involves an outstanding warrant—completed criminal activity—so the information the officers relied on must satisfy a higher level of specificity than if they were responding to a report of ongoing or very recent criminal activity.
The subject’s physical description was too general and vague. The officers did not have a photograph and did not otherwise know what the suspect looked like. Other than race and sex, they knew of no descriptors— age, height, weight, identifying marks, or clothing. Put simply, the physical description fit too many people to constitute particular, articulable facts on which to base reasonable suspicion.
The same is true of the bicycle. Other than “large handlebars,” the officers knew of no identifiers—color, make, model, condition, features, or style of handlebars. “Large handlebars” pales in comparison to vehicle descriptions that have created or contributed to reasonable suspicion.
The location fares no better. The officers knew only that the subject had previously been seen in the Leopard–Up River area and “may be” there. They had no information whatsoever about where in the area he had been seen or when he had been seen there—whether “that day,” “the day before,” or “the week before.” Nor did they have reason to believe he might still have been in the area—for example, if he resided there.
The government also relies on the area being known by the officers for gang activity. It is true 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, and so the fact that the stop occurred in a high crime area is among the relevant contextual considerations in a Terry analysis. Still, an 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. See Wardlow.
Finally, our dissenting colleague asserts that the stop was justified because Alvarez fled, absconded, and deliberately evaded the officers. Not so. If any of that were true, this case would be governed by Wardlow.
Alvarez was not absconding or fleeing from the police—he was already riding his bicycle when Officer Deleon spotted him, and he ignored the officers and kept riding when asked to stop. He had every right to do so.
C. Collective Knowledge Doctrine
In Powell, we said that reasonable suspicion can vest through the collective knowledge of the officers involved in the search and seizure operation. This doctrine applies so long as there is some degree of communication between the acting officer and the officer who has knowledge of the necessary facts.
Officers may conduct an investigatory stop in reliance on information issued through police channels, such as a wanted flyer or bulletin or a radio dispatch, if the information is based on articulable facts supporting a reasonable suspicion that the wanted person has committed an offense. But if the information has been issued in the absence of a reasonable suspicion, then a stop in the objective reliance upon it violates the Fourth Amendment.
Officer Deleon’s team could rely on the information in the round-up packet only if the police who issued the packet possessed a reasonable suspicion justifying a stop. But Deleon did not know who provided the information in the packet, and he only vaguely described the investigation leading up to the round-up.
We do not blindly accept officers’ reliance on information obtained through police channels; the government must substantiate the basis of the information. Because the government here has not established reasonable suspicion that could have been transferred between officers, the collective knowledge doctrine does not apply.
We REVERSE the denial of Alvarez’s motion to suppress, VACATE his conviction and sentence, and REMAND for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.