D.Minn.: Stop of wrong man on mistaken identity was objectively reasonable

Officers approached the defendant reasonably believing he was somebody else, and he ran. When they finally caught him and rolled him over, they realized they had the wrong person. Nevertheless, the stop was objectively reasonable despite mistaken identity. United States v. Burns, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 187356 (D. Minn. Sep. 4, 2018):

The mistaken identity—of believing Burns was Williams—was objectively reasonable. Smart, 393 F.3d at 770; see, e.g., United States v. Phillips, 679 F.3d 995 (8th Cir. 2012) (affirming denial of motion to suppress where defendant was mistaken for another suspect where the two shared physical characteristics). As the testimony shows, Burns and Williams share similar characteristics. Both are around six feet tall, both weigh around 200 pounds, both have a medium build, both are in their early twenties, both have long dreadlocked braids, both have goatee style facial hair, and both have a dark complexion. While Burns argues that he is of a darker complexion than Williams, (compare Def. Ex. 1 with Def. Ex. 2), the background coloring of the images themselves shows that Burns’ photo itself has darker composition. Indeed, the booking photos of Burns and Williams, with equal lighting and composition, show the two men have a quite similar complexion. (Compare Gov’t Ex. 3 with Gov’t Ex. 5). The winter clothing worn by Burns would have obfuscated physical characteristics that could have differentiated between Burns and Williams. Additionally, as was testified to, the long dreadlocked hair blocked law enforcement from fully viewing Burns’ face. Finally, both men were associated with the white Audi, with the same license plates—Williams from the scene near the shooting the night before, and Burns who had just exited the vehicle.

Moreover, while neither party referenced within their briefing or at the hearing the racial makeup of the law enforcement officers involved, this Court finds it instructive to reference in its analysis. Officer Haynes, who made the initial misidentification of Burns as Williams and testified that the two look alike, is himself African-American. Officer Sims, who made initial contact with Burns thinking it was Williams and described both Burns and Williams as having dark complexion, is also African-American. Officer O’Halloran, who first realized when he got up close it was not Williams who they arrested but was Burns, is Caucasian. The fact that the two African-American police officers mistook Burns for Williams buttresses the reasonability and good faith of law enforcement’s mistake, and ameliorates this Court’s concern that solely the commonality of race would be used, in and of itself, to support reasonable and articulable suspicion. Cf. United States v. Stevens, 935 F.2d 1380, 1392 (3d Cir. 1991) (“Scholarly literature attacking the trustworthiness of cross-racial identification is now legion.”); Wilson v. Firkus, 457 F. Supp. 2d 865, 890 n.7 (N.D. Ill. 2006) (“[R]esearch has shown that an eyewitness is more likely to accurately identify someone of his or her own race than someone of a different race.”); Sheri Lynn Johnson, Cross-Racial Identification Errors in Criminal Cases, 69 Cornell L. Rev. 934 (1984) (examining statistical evidence on the inaccuracy of cross-racial identification).

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