Alerts from a GPS-enabled surveillance system that gunshots had been fired helped justify a Peoria police officer’s decision to stop and search a car in the area, a divided federal appeals court held.
Splitting 2-1, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied Terrill A. Rickmon Sr.’s motion to suppress the handgun found in the car in which he was a passenger.
The court’s majority rejected the argument that the stop and search violated Rickmon’s Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.
Instead, the majority held the alerts and other circumstances combined to provide the officer with a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
However, the majority wrote, the alerts by themselves would not be enough to create such a suspicion.
Officer Travis Ellefritz conducted the search of the car containing Rickmon and the vehicle’s owner after receiving alerts from ShotSpotter of two gunshots coming from a location on North Ellis Street.
ShotSpotter uses acoustic sensors to detect the sound of gunfire and triangulate its location.
After a noise is detected, an audio file is sent to a ShotSpotter server in California. If personnel there determine the noise is gunfire, they send the time and location of the shots to the local police department.
Law enforcement officers may conduct brief stops, the 7th Circuit’s majority wrote, quoting Torry v. City of Chicago, 932 F.3d 579 (7th Cir. 2019), “if they reasonably suspect an individual has committed or is about to commit a crime.”
Ellefritz’s stop of the car was objectively reasonable when the alerts are combined with other circumstances, the majority wrote.
Those other circumstances, it wrote, include a 911 call, the dangerousness of gun violence, the light car traffic in the area and the car’s physical proximity to the shots.
“In isolation, any one of those circumstances might not be sufficient,” Judge Joel M. Flaum wrote in an opinion joined by Judge Kenneth F. Ripple. “But viewed collectively, they start to seem suspicious.”
The majority ruled on a question of first impression.
In a dissent, Chief Judge Diane P. Wood wrote Rickmon’s motion to suppress the gun should have been granted.
The facts Ellefritz knew at the time did not supply the “requisite individualized suspicion” needed to justify the stop and the search, Wood wrote.
“The only thing that distinguished the car Ellefritz chose to stop was that it existed, and it was the only car on the street at that early hour of the morning,” she wrote.
“None of the information he had received even hinted at the shooter’s car’s make, color, age, style or anything else.”
And although she did not rely on this fact, Wood wrote, “Ellefritz frankly admitted that he would have stopped literally any car he saw on North Ellis based on the information he had.”
Early in the morning one day in July 2018, Ellefritz was patrolling Peoria in his squad car.
He received a SpotSpotter alert on his computer of two gunshots coming from an address on North Ellis Street.
He received a second alert of three more shots fired as he was heading toward the address.
And Ellefritz heard a broadcast from the police dispatcher that several cars and a man who was on foot were leaving the location.
After Ellefritz arrived at the scene, he saw a car driving toward him.
The car stopped at Ellefritz’s command. The occupants pointed toward North Ellis’ dead end, shouting: “They are there.”
Ellefritz saw about 15 to 20 people at the end of the street.
Ellefritz kept his service weapon drawn and Rickmon and the driver held their hands up until other officers arrived at the scene.
When the officers arrived, Rickmon told them he had been shot in the leg.
Ellefritz got the driver’s permission to search the car. He found a handgun under the seat where Rickmon had been sitting.
Rickmon was indicted on a charge of possession of a firearm by a felon.
U.S. District Judge James E. Shadid of the Central District of Illinois held an evidentiary hearing on Rickmon’s motion to suppress in December 2018.
At the hearing, Ellefritz testified he did not know who or how many people were in the car before he stopped it.
He also testified he had no evidence before the stop that there were any weapons in the car that had been fired that night.
After Shadid denied his motion to dismiss, Rickmon entered a guilty plea conditioned on his right to challenge the ruling.
Rickmon was sentenced to 75 months in prison.
Wood acknowledged it was reasonable for Ellefritz to think the sounds of gunfire detected by ShotSpotter indicated a crime had been committed.
“But virtually nothing connected those sounds with the car he decided to stop, or indeed with any car at all — it was just as likely that the shooter had retreated into a nearby house or fled on foot (as the 911 caller indicated),” Wood wrote.
But the majority saw it differently.
“In sum,” Flaum wrote in the majority opinion, “there was nothing particularly unusual about this car, except for the fact that it was leaving the area of the gunfire.”
The car in which Rickmon was riding was on the same block as the shooting 5½ minutes after the first alert went out, the majority wrote.
Also, it wrote, the car was being driven on the only street leading away from the shooting’s location.
“Based on these facts, it was rational for Officer Ellefritz to infer that Rickmon’s car participated in the gunfight because it was the only vehicle on the street of the shooting,” Flaum wrote.
The majority opinion and dissent were issued March 11 in United States v. Terrill A. Rickmon Sr., No. 19-2054.
Luke Cass of Quarles & Brady LLP in Washington, D.C., argued the case on behalf of Rickmon.
Other attorneys representing Rickmon include E. King Poor of Quarles’ Chicago office.
Cass and Poor declined to comment.
Assistant U.S. Attorney W. Scott Simpson argued the case on behalf of the government.
Spokeswoman Sharon J. Paul of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of Illinois declined to comment.