McElree v. City of Cedar Rapids (Iowa 2020) 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 4021

Traffic Stop; Reasonable Suspicion; Excessive Force

During surveillance, LE saw individuals who were believed to be involved in methamphetamine manufacturing were loitering near a pick up truck in a Walgreen’s parking lot. One of them got out of the truck and went into Walgreen’s and purchased pseudoephedrine. A few minutes later, a different individual got out of the truck and went across the street and made a similar purchase. A third and then purchase was made at Walgreen’s by different persons associated with the truck. LE was able to monitor such sales in real time via a computer program that tracked such sales. Everyone came back to the truck and LE could see a flurry of movement and the light from a flashlight inside the truck. The truck then left Walgreen’s, dropped off one of the passengers and continued to drive. LE decided to pull the truck over because they believed it contained evidence of methamphetamine manufacturing. A PSD was called to respond as well. Three of the occupants were removed and searched. One had a knife, a meth pipe and pills. Subject was questioned through the window of the truck and was told that he was going to be searched. Subject repeatedly reached toward his own waist while an officer removed a knife on a lanyard from around subject’s neck. LE then spotted a shotgun in the cab of the truck. LE drew their firearms and told subject to get out of the truck. He refused. He then changed his mind, got out of the truck and started to move away from LE. LE tried to grab him, but lost the grip and subject starting running. While he was running, he was holding the front of his pants. PSD was deployed and latched onto subject’s leg. Subject fell, twisted and drew a firearm from his pants. LE yelled, “Gun!” LE believed that subject shot at him because he heard a clap and saw a flash of light. LE also saw an officer fall to the ground (he apparently slipped). These two officers then fired repeatedly at subject, killing him. The autopsy revealed that subject had meth in his system and his handgun was loaded but had not been fired. Subject’s family sued.

The court first analyzed whether the detention was legal and held that reasonable suspicion was supported by 1) two to three separate pseudoephedrine purchases in a 20 minute span; 2) known methamphetamine manufacturers associated with the truck and 3) suspicious levels of activity in and around the truck. Subject’s family claimed that reasonable suspicion was not founded because LE could not be sure that subject was one of the persons who purchased pseudoephedrine, but the court stated that “reasonable suspicion does not require certainty, including in the identification context.” In addition, the court recognized that LE suspicions were not developed in isolation; combined with all the evidence LE had, reasonable suspicion existed. Also, even though the purchases were legal, they were still part of the reasonable suspicion amassed by LE.

The court then addressed LE’s attempt to detain subject. Since the stop was lawful, LE was able to take any measures that are reasonably necessary to protect their personal safety and to maintain the status quo during the course of the stop. This includes instructing occupants to exit the vehicle, prevent passengers from leaving the scene and increase restraint proportionate to uncooperative behavior during an investigative detention. Here, LE knew subject was probably armed because they had removed a knife from his neck and there was a gun in the vehicle. Subject’s behavior in refusing to exit and then attempting to flee supported restraining him. As he was fleeing, he struggled with one officer and ran off, so handler’s decision to release PSD was not unreasonable. The court then addressed the deadly force of gunfire, holding that given all the circumstances and applying a Graham v. Connor standard, LE acted reasonably. They also held that the failure to give any warning of use of force was reasonable under the circumstances.