On April 25, 2017, George Wingate III noticed the check engine light activated while he was driving on the Jefferson Davis highway in Stafford County, Virginia. It was around 2 a.m., so Wingate stopped his vehicle near a car dealership parking lot to diagnose the problem. As a mechanic, he had the equipment to do so.
Deputy Scott Fulford thought the car was “disabled,” so he pulled up behind it. Wingate exited his vehicle and greeted the deputy, explaining he was experiencing car trouble on the way to his girlfriend’s house.
Fulford requested Wingate’s identification, and Wingate asked why he had to provide it. At that point, Fulford began recording the incident and requested backup. Fulford stated that providing ID upon an officer’s request was the law in Stafford County, but Wingate continued to refuse and asked if he was “free to go.” Fulford said Wingate wasn’t being “detained,” but he was not free to go until he provided ID.
After Lt. Dimas Pinzon arrived on the scene, the officers proceeded to attempt to arrest Wingate, which occurred after a struggle.
Wingate was charged with resisting arrest, attempting to intimidate or impede a law-enforcement official, and for failing to provide ID to law enforcement upon request. However, these charges were dropped after Wingate’s lawyer notified the prosecuting attorney the ID law was likely unconstitutional.
Wingate then filed claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Virginia common law for false arrest and prosecution, as well as being subject to an unconstitutional seizure. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled against Wingate on all claims, and he appealed.
Because the parties agreed on the material facts of the case, the Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s application of the law in granting the officers summary judgement.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prevents unreasonable searches and seizures, and this covers officially being detained by law enforcement. United States v. Arizona, 534 U.S. 266 (2002). Officers may approach someone absent suspicion of criminal conduct and “generally ask questions of that individual.” Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429 (1991). This includes “providing assistance.” United States v. Monsivais, 848 F.3d 353 (5th Cir. 2017).
When Deputy Fulford pulled over to provide vehicular assistance, this was not an investigatory or “Terry” stop. However, once Fulford told Wingate he was not free to leave until he provided ID, the encounter became an investigatory detention. Bostick (explaining that an encounter will “trigger Fourth Amendment scrutiny” when “it loses its consensual nature”).
Officers arrested Wingate for violating Stafford County Ordinance Section 17-7(c), which makes it a crime to refuse an officer’s request for identification “if the surrounding circumstances are such as to indicate to a reasonable man that the public safety requires such identification.”
However, this ordinance does not survive constitutional scrutiny, according to the Court. It is similar to the Texas law struck down in Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47 (1979) (“Even assuming that [crime prevention] is served to some degree by stopping and demanding identification from an individual without any specific basis for believing he is involved in criminal activity, the guarantees of the Fourth Amendment do not allow it”).
Guided by a corollary ruling in Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada, 542 U.S. 177 (2004) (“[t]he request for identity has an immediate relation to the purpose, rationale, and practical demands of a Terry stop”), the Court explained that Deputy Fulford could lawfully require Wingate to produce ID if officers could justify an investigatory stop on other grounds.
Fulford further tried to justify the detention on the grounds that he claimed Wingate was attempting to steal catalytic converters. He based this on (1) Wingate’s vehicle being parked with its hood up near a dealership at 2 a.m., (2) the vehicle was parked in a dimly lit area despite better lit areas not far away, (3) there had been such thefts in the county recently, (4) Wingate exited his vehicle and approached Fulford’s cruiser unprompted, (5) Wingate was wearing all-black clothing, and (6) Wingate claimed vehicle trouble despite the vehicle appearing to be idling without issue.
The Court said that, even when aggregated, these factors fell short of the reasonable suspicion required to justify an investigatory stop. The Court observed: “We have often emphasized that the Fourth Amendment requires particularity – ‘a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.’” Quoting United States v. Massenburg, 654 F.3d 677 (4th Cir. 2015).
Most of the present factors, said the Court, “indicated a car in distress, not criminal activity.”
Further, the Court stated that “the notion that the driver of a broken-down vehicle creates suspicion of criminal activity by approaching the officer trying to render him aid, put candidly, defies reason.” And Wingate’s all-black clothing “might be necessary to successfully engage in larceny” or could simply be the “latest fashion trends.”
Since officers could not justify the arrest under an unconstitutional county ordinance to provide ID or provide reasonable suspicion to justify the stop on other, larcenous grounds, the Court held the district court erred in ruling the stop was constitutional.
Accordingly the Court reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the officers and remanded the case for trial.
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Related legal case
Wingate v. Fulford
|Cite||987 F.3d 299 (4th Cir. 2021)|
|Level||Court of Appeals|
|Appeals Court Edition||F.3d|