Cop-Blocked: No Reasonable Suspicion for St. Thomas Traffic Stop
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court to grant an appellant’s motion for suppression this week, finding that the police did not have reasonable suspicion to stop the appellant's car and conduct a search.
Police officers in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands stopped Ahmoi Lewis after receiving a tip from a reliable source that individuals in a white Toyota Camry with the number 181 in the license plate were carrying firearms. The tipster did not provide details about the legal status of the guns.
Police stopped Lewis' car, based on the tip and Lewis' illegally-tinted windows, and found firearms during a subsequent search. Before pleading guilty to two firearm offenses, Lewis unsuccessfully moved to suppress the firearm as the fruit of an unlawful search and seizure.
The Third Circuit reversed the district court and suppressed the firearm evidence, finding that the police did not have reasonable suspicion to stop Lewis' car.
Though pretextual traffic stops supported by reasonable suspicion do not run afoul of the Fourth Amendment, an officer must observe a traffic violation prior to initiating a pretextual traffic stop. Here, the officers could not justify the stop based on the window tints because they did not determine that Lewis' windows were illegally tinted before the stop. According to the Third Circuit, ex post facto justifications are impermissible.
Furthermore, because it is lawful for certain individuals in the Virgin Islands to carry a firearm, a tip that individuals in Lewis' car had firearms did not create reasonable suspicion for the stop without additional information regarding the legal status of such weapons.
If you're making a reasonable suspicion argument in a similar case, remember that pretextual traffic stops are fine, post-textual justification will never suffice, and a tip-prompted traffic stop must involve a tip about illegal activity.
- U.S. v. Lewis (Third Circuit Court of Appeals)
- Tenth Cir. Serves Reasonable Suspicion on Dangling License Plate (FindLaw's Tenth Circuit blog)
- Sixth Circuit Unreasonable Search Claim Goes to the Dogs (FindLaw's Sixth Circuit blog)
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