Federal Court of Appeals Tosses Gun Conviction, Finds No Reasonable Suspicion for Arrest

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that a man with a sagging sweatshirt acting suspiciously was not enough for “reasonable suspicion” to allow an arrest, agreeing that the evidence in the case should have been suppressed and vacated the conviction.

He was thought to be a robbery suspect by a man who saw Daniel Critchfield coming from the area of an unoccupied house while he was on his way to work as the postal inspector. So, the man followed Mr. Critchfield and called the local cops, who found a firearm in Mr. Critchfield’s sweatshirt pocket, which is what was weighing it down. However, the cops also found a few pills of suboxone, one hydrocodone, one Xanax, and one Adderall pill. Unsurprisingly, they drug-tested Critchfield and found he had all these things in his system. While they couldn’t charge him with the robbery they thought he may have committed, they charged him with possessing a firearm while being an unlawful user of a controlled substance, under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3), the same federal offense that Hunter Biden is dealing with.

While much has been said lately about the questionable legality and constitutionality of § 922(g)(3), the Fourth Circuit in this case found that the cops didn’t even have the legal authority to arrest Mr. Critchfield, so his § 922(g)(3) conviction couldn’t be upheld. The court analyzed whether the cops had “reasonable suspicion” to arrest Mr. Critchfield, a requirement for any arrest and not really a high bar, and concluded that they did not.

Reasonable suspicion is often based on “common sense judgments reached by officers in light of their experience and training in identifying suspicious circumstances that may appear unremarkable to a layman,” the court said. “The officer must be able to articulate objective reasons for his suspicion,” but a mere “hunch” isn’t enough. A look at the totality of the circumstances can support reasonable suspicion.

Federal prosecutors argued in this case that the suspected crime wasn’t the firearm for which Mr. Critchfield was charged and convicted, but the suspected robbery that the cops were called out for. But neither the cops nor the postal inspector ever saw Mr. Critchfield take any action that would have raised suspicion he committed a robbery. His nervousness about the man following him (who he didn’t know was a postal inspector) and that he came from a public area near an abandoned house did not make him a suspect in a robbery that didn’t happen in the first place. When the cops surrounded him, he complied with their commands. He didn’t try to run or hide anything, and therefore the cops did not have reasonable suspicion to arrest Mr. Critchfield, the court concluded, vacating his conviction.

United States v. Critchfield, No. 22-4063, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 23133 (4th Cir. Aug. 31, 2023)

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