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ShotSpotter data helped provide reasonable suspicion for stop

United States v. Terrill A. Rickmon, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals No. 19-2054, 3/11/20

Police stopped a vehicle because it was emerging from the source of a ShotSpotter alert. The 7th Circuit holds that the totality of the circumstances gave the officer responding to the scene reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to justify the stop.

As readers may know (and the court explains),

ShotSpotter is a surveillance system that uses sophisticated microphones to record gunshots in a specific area. After a device detects the sound of gunfire, it relays the audio file to a server in California, where an individual determines whether the sound is a shot. When that individual confirms the sound is a gunshot, ShotSpotter sends it back to the local police department.  (Slip op. at 2).

In this case, a police officer saw a ShotSpotter alert for a certain block of North Ellis Street. As he was heading to the area, dispatch alerted him to a report of shots being fired and cars leaving the area and a black male on foot on McClure, an intersecting street. When the officer turned onto McClure he saw an approaching car, which he immediately stopped. The occupants—including Rickmon, a felon—directed the officer’s attention to a group of people down the street, saying “they are down there!” But the officer continued to detain the occupants. After getting consent to search the car, he found a gun under Rickmon’s seat. (Slip op. at 2-3).

A majority of the court rejects Rickmon’s challenge of the stop:

Rickmon argues that ShotSpotter, standing on its own, should not allow police officers to stop a vehicle in the immediate vicinity of a gunfire report without any individualized suspicion of that vehicle. We generally agree with this proposition. Indeed, we question whether a single ShotSpotter alert would amount to reasonable suspicion. But we disagree with Rickmon’s conclusion that, in this case, the officer had only an “unparticular hunch”—rather than “specific and articulable facts”—that the car connected back to the crimes. As the district court found, the totality of the circumstances establishes the officer stopped the car for more reasons than just its location in ShotSpotter’s coverage zone. (Slip op. at 7) (emphasis added).

It appears Rickmon raised some concerns about the reliability of ShotSpotter, but he didn’t fully litigate that issue below and instead focused on arguing the stop wasn’t justified under the totality of the circumstances. That, plus the corroboration of the ShotSpotter alert by the calls about shots being fired, leads the court to express no opinion on ShotSpotter’s reliability. (Slip op. at 4 n.2).

As far the totality of the circumstances analysis, it’s pretty standard. The court cites the following:

  • two ShotSpotter alerts plus two dispatches of 911 calls reporting a shooting on North Ellis, the latter of which show the officer did not merely act on uncorroborated information. (Slip op. at 9-11).
  • the nature of the reported conduct, because “[w]e have repeatedly emphasized in our decisions that the inherent danger of gun violence sets shootings apart from other criminal activity.” (Slip op. at 11).
  • Rickmon’s vehicle being on the same block of the shooting 5½ minutes after the officer received the reports and driving away from the shooting on the only street leading to it. (Slip op. at 12).
  • The time (4:45 a.m.) and lack of other traffic, making the encounter less likely to be coincidental. (Slip op. at 13).
  • The officer’s knowledge that there are frequent shots-fired calls on the block. (Id.)

Judge Wood dissents, saying the only basis for stopping the car Rickmon was that it existed and was the only car on the street: “None of the information [the officer] had received even hinted at the shooter’s car’s make, color, age, style, or anything else. Indeed, though I do not rely on this subjective fact, [the officer] frankly admitted that he would have stopped literally any car he saw on North Ellis based on the information he had.” (Dissent at 16-17).

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