Standing Near a Dumpster in Bad Neighborhood: Terry Stop Worthy?

By William Peacock, Esq. on January 17, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A guy stands next to a dumpster behind a convenience store in a high crime area talking to another guy. There are “no trespassing” signs posted nearby and the store’s owner has previously reported trespassers in the area. In addition, there have been multiple shootings near the store. The moment a police car pulls into the lot, the two individuals take off running.

Can they be subjected to a Terry stop?

Though one of the individuals escaped, the other, Irvin Bumpers, stopped when ordered to by the police officer. He told the officer that his name was Aaron Bumpers, which returned a warrant. He then gave the correct name, which also returned a warrant. He was placed under arrest and a loaded .38 revolver was found on his person. He was tried and convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

The question before the Fourth Circuit was whether the Fourth Amendment precluded the stop.

The two person majority felt that the stop was acceptable. Though Terry and subsequent decisions stand for the proposition that one cannot be stopped, even for a moment, unless there is reasonable suspicion that a crime is afoot, the court felt that the officer's awareness of the context of the neighborhood, the defendant's odd location near the dumpsters, and his quick retreat from the area in response to the officer, when considered as a whole, justified the stop.

They also made an interesting note about his path of escape. Had he not been trespassing and been on the way to the store when he decided to stop for a conversation in the vicinity of stinky dumpsters, he would have gone in the store when he took off. Instead, he blew right past the door. Conversely, had he been on his way out of the store, he wouldn't have walked as far as the dumpster and doubled back. His path alone pointed strongly towards trespassing.

The passionate dissent, to simplify it a bit, is worried about the "walking while black" issue. Judge Diaz especially disagreed with the weight given to the area's crime rate, quoting SCOTUS in stating, "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 ...." It should merely be one factor.

Beyond that one factor, the defendant here merely walked in the opposite direction. He didn't flee at high speed or hop fences. He walked towards the front of the store and passed the door without stopping. He was stopped after standing in a parking lot of an open convenience store for a matter of seconds. He could have been catching up with a friend, asking for directions, or even catching his breath. He then chose to walk away from an officer who had not yet stopped him.

The dissenting judge referred to this as "Fourth Amendment lite." Share your thoughts on our Facebook or Twitter pages.

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