On Appeal from the United States District Court For the Middle District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Criminal No. 03-cr-00036) District Judge: Honorable John E. Jones, III.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garth, Circuit Judge
Before: MCKEE and GARTH, Circuit Judges, and LIFLAND, District Judge*fn1
State police officers, acting upon a non-specific tip, stopped a vehicle in the immediate vicinity of a reported theft in progress. We address the constitutionality of this investigatory stop under the "reasonable suspicion" standard of Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), and its progeny. We hold that, notwithstanding the vague and imprecise description provided by the informant in this case, other relevant circumstances furnished the police with "reasonable suspicion" to justify the Terry stop. We will therefore affirm the District Court's judgment which denied appellant's motion to suppress evidence, but as our opinion explains, we do so for an entirely different reason.
As the "reasonable suspicion" inquiry is highly fact-dependent in nature, we proceed to describe the facts relating to the vehicle stop in some detail, placing sole emphasis on those events preceding the stop. We preface this factual discussion, however, by noting that both the District Court and the parties refer to many facts having little or no relation to the vehicle stop. Such facts were deemed relevant in the proceedings below because the District Court erroneously held that Terry did not authorize the stop and therefore proceeded to consider the application of the exclusionary rule to the contested evidence. It ultimately denied the suppression motion, concluding that the contested evidence should nonetheless be admitted under certain exceptions to the exclusionary rule. Our analysis does not proceed beyond the constitutional principles governing the investigatory stop. Because we uphold the validity of the stop, we have no occasion to reach or address the alternate theories relied upon by the District Court in denying the suppression motion.
Mill Hall is a small town in Clinton County, Pennsylvania. Situated along the railroad tracks in a mixed residential and commercial part of town, directly adjacent to Mill Hall Clay Products and diagonally across the railroad tracks from R&M Gas & Oil ("R&M Gas"), is Webb's Super-Gro ("Webb's"), a farm supply company which sells anhydrous ammonia, among other agricultural products. Anhydrous ammonia is a chemical used in agricultural industries, but also frequently employed in the production of methamphetamine. As a result of repeated thefts of anhydrous ammonia from Webb's tanks, the police viewed the surrounding vicinity as a "hot spot" for criminal activity. App. 246.
On the night of September 10, 2002, at approximately 11:20 p.m., the Pennsylvania State Police Barracks in Lamar, Pennsylvania received a call from an employee at Mill Hall Clay Products, reporting a possible theft in progress from Webb's anhydrous ammonia tanks. The caller identified himself as Todd Gentzyel ("Gentzyel"), a third-shift kiln operator at the brickyard adjacent to Webb's. Gentzyel previously had informed the Lamar Barracks of similar thefts and had been advised to call the state police immediately upon witnessing any suspicious activity in the future. He told the police communications officer ("PCO") that, ". . . there was two people just carrying some kind of buckets or something across from the Webb's . . . and they're just, they're over behind R&M Gas right now loading into some kind of a vehicle. I'm gonna go try to get a description." App. 392. The PCO directed Gentzyel to call back when he obtained a description, and then immediately dispatched Troopers Stephen Wilcox and Christopher Soo from the Lamar Barracks to R&M Gas. The PCO also dispatched Trooper David Kirkendall, already out on patrol, to the scene. At 11:21 p.m., the PCO repeated to one of the responding troopers that the suspects were behind R&M Gas. App. 392.
Having responded to numerous incidents at Webb's on prior occasions and having conducted routine surveillance of the anhydrous ammonia tanks on the property, Troopers Wilcox and Soo were both familiar with the location of R&M Gas and the surrounding area. App. 110, 157. They arrived in Mill Hall within seven minutes of Gentzyel's call and proceeded down Pennsylvania Avenue -- the main roadway running through Mill Hall -- in the direction of R&M Gas. As they drove down Pennsylvania Avenue, the troopers observed no vehicles coming from the direction of R&M Gas. App. 117. However, as they turned right onto Agnew Street -- one of the side streets intersecting Pennsylvania Avenue -- in order to approach R&M Gas, they immediately spotted a small, dark-colored vehicle in front of R&M Gas about a block and a half ahead. No other occupied vehicles were in the area. App. 199.
At approximately 11:28 p.m.,*fn2 Troopers Wilcox and Soo pulled in front of the vehicle and activated their lights, causing the vehicle to stop. At about the same time, Trooper Kirkendall arrived from another direction and stopped behind the vehicle. The government does not dispute that this initial stop constitutes a seizure for Terry purposes.
Meanwhile, just prior to the stop, at precisely 11:26:44 p.m., Gentzyel called back and reported to the PCO that the vehicle had just pulled out "over by R&M Gas." App. 395. He believed, though he was not certain, that the occupants looked like two women, and he described the driver as a "blond-haired lady." App. 396. He then advised the PCO that the troopers had, in fact, pulled over the vehicle he was describing. App. 396. As the stop occurred, Gentzyel remained on the telephone line, providing further descriptions to assist the officers in their investigation. In particular, Gentzyel told the PCO the following additional information:
I fire the kilns on third shift and when I walked out they come across our parking lot. There was two people, two individuals carrying, it looked like buckets of something. They walked across the railroad tracks and went over to R&M Gas. Over behind the R&M gas plant, and then they were loadin' stuff for about five minutes. I hurried up and run in and made a call, went back out to see if I could get a description of the vehicle.
App. 397. Gentzyel also described the vehicle in question as a smaller, dark-colored vehicle, like a Cavalier, and reported that he saw the two persons "really struggling" with the container as they carried and loaded it into the rear of the car. App. 400-02.
Immediately after the stop, Trooper Soo exited his vehicle and ran down the street to R&M Gas to check for other vehicles or individuals in the area. He observed no other activity in the area. However, between the stopped vehicle and R&M Gas, he encountered a strong smell of ammonia and noticed a substance scattered on the street with a cup and spoon located nearby. To the troopers, it appeared as if the cup and spoon had been thrown from the vehicle prior to the stop. App. 369.
The troopers then spoke with the occupants -- later identified as Jervis Goodrich ("Goodrich"), defendant below, appellant here, who occupied the passenger seat, and his girlfriend Melissa Kinne ("Kinne"), the driver and owner of the vehicle -- to determine if they had seen anything suspicious in the area. Goodrich and Kinne responded in the negative, and further told the troopers that they had been "parking" at R&M Gas. The troopers, however, observed within the vehicle in plain view tools and rags, a pliers, and a flashlight. From their prior experience, the troopers knew that these things were commonly used during anhydrous ammonia thefts. App. 130-31, 366-67. Moreover, at least one of the occupants matched Gentzyel's description of "a blonde-haired lady" and the car generally matched his description of a small, dark-colored vehicle, which information the troopers had received on police radio during the investigatory stop.
At some point, the troopers asked about the trunk of the car. Goodrich stated that he had gone into the trunk to retrieve a blanket. App. 129-30. The troopers thereupon requested permission to search the trunk, at which point Goodrich claimed that the key had broken off in the trunk lock and that he had used pliers in retrieving the blanket from the trunk. Upon examination, however, the troopers saw no key broken off in the lock. App. 132. Kinne, in turn, had told one of the troopers that she had lost the key to the trunk. App. 135. And when a trooper suggested that she turn off the car to prevent it from overheating, Kinne turned off the ignition and placed the keys in her waistband, thereby further arousing the troopers' suspicion. App. 135-36.
After conducting a National Crime Information Center check of the vehicle's license plate number and after running Goodrich's and Kinne's names and dates of birth through law enforcement databases, the troopers learned that there was an outstanding parole warrant in New York for Goodrich. He was thereupon taken into custody.
At this juncture, Gentzyel was brought to the scene and identified the vehicle and the occupants as the same vehicle and persons that he observed earlier in the evening. Based on Gentzyel's identification and the other information gathered during the investigatory stop, the troopers believed probable cause existed to arrest Goodrich and Kinne for theft of anhydrous ammonia. Accordingly, they placed Kinne in custody, and informed both Goodrich and Kinne of their intent to file theft and drug charges. And yet despite their belief ...