Trading Guns: The Fourth Amendment’s Reasonable Suspicion Requirements

By Mike Davidson

In U.S. v. Brown, appellant William Brown was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm.  No. 08-8086, (10th Cir. Jun. 9, 2009).  Brown argued that the arresting officer violated his Fourth Amendment rights by pulling over his car without reasonable suspicion.  The Tenth Circuit clarified the Fourth Amendment’s prohibitions by holding that an officer is justified in conducting a traffic stop, and subsequently searching a vehicle, after observing certain suspicious behavior.  The officer had been conducting surveillance in a high-crime area on the night of the arrest.  At approximately 3:30 am, the officer observed two cars drive into a convenience store parking lot. Brown’s car pulled into the unlit portion of the parking lot.  After exiting the vehicle, Brown and his passenger walked toward the street and surveyed the surrounding area.  Brown then pulled a pump shotgun from his trunk and made an exchange with the owner of the other vehicle.

Suspicious that he had just witnessed a “transfer of stolen property, a drug transaction, or a robbery setup,” the officer called for backup and pulled over Brown’s car. After learning that Brown was a convicted felon, the officer arrested Brown for being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2).  Brown subsequently argued that the traffic stop was an unlawful violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful search and seizures.

The Tenth Circuit held that a law enforcement officer may stop and briefly detain an individual if the officer has a reasonable suspicion under the totality of the circumstances that criminal activity is occurring.  In this case, given the officer’s more than thirty years of experience, the court concluded that the officer had reasonable suspicion to justify the stop.

The stop was further justified by the fact that the officer observed suspicious behavior by appellant Brown.  In a high-crime area, at 3:30 in the morning, Brown parked in the unlit corner of a convenience store parking lot, surveyed the area “as if he was looking to see whether any police, cars, or other people were in the area,” and then exchanged a pump shotgun with another individual.  Neither Brown nor the other participants were wearing any hunting gear, which could have suggested a lawful reason for the exchange.  According to the Court, under the totality of the circumstances, these facts provided reasonable suspicion that justified the officer’s stop and did not violate the appellant’s Fourth Amendment rights.