United States v. Reginald Gibbs (11th Cir. March 2019)
Fourth Amendment – Detention of defendant constituted a reasonable traffic stop where officers arrived at the scene and the defendant was in close proximity to the driver and his vehicle, despite the fact that officers approached with their guns drawn and that the defendant was not suspected of any criminal activity.
Reginald Gibbs appealed the district court’s denial of his motion suppress evidence after law enforcement found a firearm in his pocket during a traffic stop where he was neither the driver nor a passenger.
The case began when Miami law enforcement arrived to find an Audi idling in the middle of a lane of oncoming traffic. Upon their arrival, Gibbs and the driver of the Audi were standing between the Audi and another car on the shoulder of the road. The Miami officers approached the men from both sides, leaving them stuck between the two cars. As the officers approached, Gibbs volunteered that he had a firearm on his person and lacked a license for concealed carry. He was arrested and subsequently charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
Gibbs filed a motion to suppress the firearm and his statements. Two witnesses at the suppression hearing testified that the officers had exited their vehicles and approached Gibbs with their weapons drawn and had yelled at Gibbs to “get down.” The officers testified that they never drew their weapons or given Gibbs any commands.
The district court found that the officers had drawn their guns but were justified in doing so given the “evening hour and number of people in the high crime area.” The district court also found that, prior to the firearm’s seizure, Gibbs’ brief detention was permissible under Terry v. Ohio. Accordingly, the district court denied Gibbs’ motion to suppress the statements where he admitted to having a firearm. Gibbs then entered a conditional guilty plea preserving his right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress as it related to the firearm.
On appeal, the Court affirmed the district court’s ruling. First, the Court held that, despite the unusual circumstances, this was a traffic stop and not a Terry stop, a significant distinction because the “inherent danger in traffic stops” allows a broader scope of permissible behavior by law enforcement under the Fourth Amendment. This traffic stop was supported by clear violations of Florida traffic laws, and even though the violations were caused by the Audi’s driver, the Court held that Gibbs’ detention was justified given his proximity to the driver and the car, the brief time period before his statements, and the fact that one officer was unsure who drove the Audi. Under those circumstances, Gibbs’ brief detention was reasonable so the officers could gain “command of the situation.”
The Court also held that the officers drawing their weapons did not convert the traffic stop into an unlawful seizure. The Court rejected a bright line rule that an officer drawing his weapon transforms an otherwise lawful stop into an unlawful detention. The firearm issue here, the Court held, was a “red herring,” and bore no relevance on the propriety of the traffic stop.
Appeal from the Southern District of Florida
Opinion by Marcus, joined by Dubina and Goldberg (by designation from the U.S. Court of International Trade)