In 2011, around 11:30 p.m., John Wrenn was having an argument with a Mr. Frazier outside of Frazier’s house. Mr. Frazier asked Wrenn to leave several times but he refused. Dorothy Frazier, his wife, called 911 and while she was on the phone, she saw Wrenn point a shotgun at Mr. Frazier and then fire into the air before leaving in his truck.
Another neighbor also called 911 and reported hearing a gunshot and noted that the man was driving away in a large, loud, white truck, possibly a Ford F150 or a Chevy. Officer Ken Magill responded to the call and had two people point in a particular direction.
He proceeded in that direction and then saw and stopped a truck about half a mile from the Frazier’s house. There were hardly any cars on the road and he believed the truck fit the description (as it turned out, the truck was powder blue and not white).
Magill believed that the driver might be armed, so he waited for additional officers to arrive.
Once backup arrived, Magill ordered the driver to get out of the truck and approach him slowly. The officers had their guns drawn on the driver, later identified as Wrenn, as he exited and approached them. They performed a Terry frisk and then handcuffed him.
The officers immediately noticed that Wrenn smelled of alcohol and that his speech was slurred, and Wrenn admitted that he had been drinking. Accordingly, the officers placed Wrenn under arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence. Officers then did a quick search of Wrenn’s truck to make sure there was nobody else in the vehicle, at which point they saw a sawed-off shotgun and shotgun shells in the cab of the truck.
Wrenn was Mirandized and questioned around 2 a.m. after enough time had passed for him to sober up. He admitted the shotgun was his and he had been drinking. He was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and sentenced to ten years as a habitual offender. On appeal, he argued 1) there was no probable cause for the stop and 2) officers exceeded the scope of Terry by getting him out of the truck at gunpoint. MCOA affirms.
A. There was reasonable suspicion for stop
In Martin, the MSC said that an officer may make a brief, investigatory stop of a vehicle if the officer has reasonable suspicion to believe that the occupants of the vehicle have been, are currently, or are about to be involved in criminal activity.
In Cooper, the MSC said that reasonable suspicion must be grounded in specific and articulable facts and can arise from an officer’s personal observations, a tip by a trusted informant, or even an anonymous tip. Thus, reasonable suspicion is based on something less than the personal observation of a violation of law.
Reasonable suspicion is the standard for a stop or search based on suspicious activity that does not yet amount to criminal activity, but which compels an officer to believe that criminal activity has happened, is happening, or is about to happen.
Martin also said that probable cause is a higher standard and requires a higher level of suspicion than reasonable suspicion. Most traffic stops are based on probable cause because they are based on a law enforcement officer’s direct observation of a traffic violation. An officer who witnesses an actual violation necessarily has probable cause to stop the vehicle.
Magill did not witness Wrenn commit a traffic violation. Officers subsequently determined that Wrenn had been drinking but Magill did not know or have reason to believe that Wrenn was under the influence when he initiated the stop. Rather, Magill stopped Wrenn because he suspected that Wrenn was the same man who had fired a gun during a disturbance on Heather Cove only minutes earlier.
We hold that, at minimum, Magill had reasonable suspicion to initiate an investigatory stop of Wrenn’s truck. When Magill came upon Wrenn’s Ford F-150, he knew that 1) a shooting had occurred about three minutes earlier at a house about half a mile away, 2) a witness had reported that the suspect fled in a large white truck, possibly a Ford F-150 or a Chevy, and 3) the suspect’s truck was headed north in the same direction that Wrenn’s truck was traveling.
Wrenn’s truck was “very light blue” or “powder blue,” not white, as reported by the witness. However, Magill did not observe any other truck that fit the witness’s description, and there were few cars on the road late at night (approximately 11:30 p.m.) in this residential area. Under the circumstances, it was reasonable for Magill to conclude that the witness was simply mistaken about the color of the truck.
Based on the totality of the circumstances known to Magill, we hold that he had reasonable suspicion, grounded in specific and articulable facts, to believe that Wrenn was the suspect fleeing the recent shooting a short distance away on Heather Cove.
B. Officers did not exceed scope of Terry stop
The U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v Hensley, 469 U.S. 221 (1985), said that during a Terry stop, officers are authorized to take such steps as are reasonably necessary to protect their personal safety and to maintain the status quo during the course of the stop. In Hensley, the officer made a Terry stop with his gun drawn.
In United States v. Sanders, 994 F. 2d 200 (5th Cir. 1993), the Federal 5th Circuit held that an officer was justified in drawing his weapon and handcuffing a suspect as part of a Terry stop when responding to a call about a suspicious person carrying a gun.
Therefore, it cannot be said that whenever police draw weapons the resulting seizure must be deemed an arrest rather than a stop. The courts have rather consistently upheld such police conduct when the circumstances indicated that it was a reasonable precaution for the protection and safety of the investigating officers.
In this case, the officers were responding late at night to a 911 report of gunfire when they encountered the defendant, who matched the description of the suspect. They reasonably suspected that he was armed and had fired his weapon during a disturbance at a nearby home only a few minutes earlier.
Magill was sufficiently concerned about his safety to wait for backup to arrive before he directed Wrenn to get out of the truck. Magill testified that Wrenn was handcuffed for the officers’ safety so that they could confirm that there was no one else in the truck.
Officers then did a quick search of Wrenn’s truck to make sure there was nobody else inside. We hold that the officers’ actions were fully consistent with their authority to take such steps as were reasonably necessary to protect their personal safety and to maintain the status quo during the course of the stop.