Shhhh! Whisper Stops and U.S. v. Bowman

I recently summarized a Fourth Circuit traffic stop case arising out of western North Carolina, U.S. v. Bowman, 884 F.3d 200 (4th Cir. 2018). It’s an interesting case in its own right as an application of U.S. v. Rodriguez, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015) (holding that extensions of a traffic stop must be supported by reasonable suspicion). In short, the Fourth Circuit reversed the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress, finding that the trooper lacked reasonable suspicion to extend the stop after the traffic stop was completed and vacating the defendant’s drug conviction. There are interesting issues in the case about when a seizure occurs and about whether the defendant consented to the extension of the stop, and readers are encouraged to check out the case, or at least the summary here (you can read all of the Fourth Circuit case updates here).

What caught my eye about it was a footnote in the opinion. Before the state trooper encountered the defendant, the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) passed along a tip to the local authorities in N.C. that the defendant’s vehicle was suspected of trafficking meth. That tip provided the vehicle’s license plate number and a description (“a red, older model Lexus”). According to the footnote, “The government agrees that the DEA tip should not be considered in any way in our legal analysis.” Slip op. at 3 n.1. Why would that be? After some digging and help from attorneys in the Charlotte Office of Federal Public Defender (thanks again to Ann Hester, Kevin Tate, and Mary Ellen Coleman from that office for talking about the case with me), I was able to determine that this was an instance of a so-called “whisper” stop. Although not exactly a new practice, its application in the digital age raises interesting questions. The tip aspect of the case is not discussed in Bowman beyond the brief mention in the footnote, but the case is a clear sign that the practice is occurring in North Carolina and elsewhere, so I wanted to cover it in today’s post.

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