CA2: Virtually intentional frisk of wrong man was manifestly unreasonable

Defendant was stopped on the street in NYC because the officer thought that he was somebody else. Actually, it was fairly obvious that they didn’t look alike. Moreover, defendant produced a valid ID in his real name, and it was apparent that he wasn’t the man the officer was looking for. The officer frisked him anyway “uncovering a gun and 27 bags of crack.” Assuming reasonable suspicion, which isn’t at all apparent, the frisk was unreasonable. The government’s position would lead to the search of any black man when a black man is sought. United States v. Watson, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 8377 (2d Cir. May 21, 2015):

Although the district court’s opinion is somewhat ambiguous as to whether the initial stop was justified, stating only that Vaccaro’s belief that Watson was Butler “might” have been the basis for the stop, the defendant does not claim on this appeal that the officers — observing Watson briefly at a distance — lacked reasonable suspicion to believe he was Butler, and so we assume as much for purposes of this appeal. But “once reasonable suspicion exists to detain a traveler, the detention can continue [only] ‘for the period of time necessary to either verify or dispel the suspicion.'” United States v. Esieke, 940 F.2d 29, 35 (2d Cir. 1991) (quoting United States v. Montoya de Hernandez, 473 U.S. 531, 544, 105 S. Ct. 3304, 87 L. Ed. 2d 381, (1985)). “Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied” to the reason for the stop — here, determining whether Watson was Butler — “are — or reasonably should have been — completed.” See Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609, 1614, 191 L. Ed. 2d 492 (2015).

The district court specifically discredited Vaccaro’s testimony that, even after he got close enough to Watson to observe him clearly, he still was uncertain whether Watson was Butler. More importantly, the district court found, in effect, that no reasonable officer could have so believed by the time of the search. This legal conclusion was based on the factual finding that Watson and Butler simply “do not look [a]like.” They have, as the district court found, materially different facial features, skin tones, heights, ages, and so forth. These material differences would have been apparent to any reasonable officer, especially one who, like Vaccaro, had had previous contact with Butler, and would have been further corroborated by Watson’s production of identification showing that he was Watson, not Butler.

The district court’s effective legal conclusion — that a reasonable officer, once he had had a chance to view Watson up close, could not have reasonably believed he was Butler — is fully supported by these factual findings. Nor do we see any basis for concluding that these findings are clearly erroneous. The Government argues, inter alia, that, to the extent that the district court’s finding that the two men do not look alike was based on its in-person observation of Watson, we should discredit it because the district court had an extended opportunity to view Watson in a well-lit courtroom, whereas Officer Vaccaro viewed him for only a minute. But the testimony in the record shows that it was light out at the time of the stop, and that, once he exited his car, Officer Vaccaro’s view was not impaired. A material difference in skin tone, facial features, and height is not something that takes a long time to process. Thus, we see no reason to conclude that the factual findings of the district court are clearly erroneous.

The rule that the government would have us adopt has the practical effect of permitting police officers to search any black male who is of roughly similar height, age, and skin tone to another black male charged with a crime. Such a rule is unreasonable on its face.

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