Local News

Court's Ruling Could Affect How Officers Search, Question Suspects

Posted September 18, 2007 6:48 p.m. EDT
Updated September 19, 2007 1:39 a.m. EDT

— The North Carolina Court of Appeals' unanimous decision to overturn a ruling this week in an April 2005 armed robbery case could affect how police target and search suspects.

The ruling, filed Tuesday, said police need more than a vague description to stop a potential suspect.

It stems from a case in which a Raleigh police officer spotted Russell Antoine Cooper near the intersection of Lake Ridge and Deanna drives about five minutes after an armed robbery at a convenience store a quarter-mile away on Capital Boulevard.

The officer had heard on his radio that the robber was a black male and that a black male had been seen walking on Lake Ridge Drive shortly after the robbery.

The officer stopped Cooper, frisked and searched him and then arrested him for carrying a concealed handgun. According to the appeals court's ruling, Cooper confessed he loaned the gun to another man to commit the robbery in exchange for money.

But the defense later asked that the evidence from the search be thrown out, contending the officer lacked "reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity."

In December, Cooper was convicted of aiding and abetting and was sentenced to 57 to 78 months in prison.

The Court of Appeals ruled the court erred in denying the defense's motion to suppress evidence seized from a warrantless search, saying it was illegal

"It's the Court of Appeals protecting civil liberties for all of us," said Raleigh defense attorney Bob Hensley.

He said he believes the court made the right decision.

"Just because somebody happens to be a certain race within a half-mile of a certain area and matches a physical description, that does not make them a suspect of a crime – especially something heinous like an armed robbery," Hensley said.

But police advocates question the appeals court's ruling.

"It's very disappointing," said Rick Armstrong, head of the Raleigh Police Protective Association. "It sends a message that police officers really can't do their job."

Armstrong said says he would have done the same thing if he had been the officer.

"If an officer had gotten that description over the radio and let someone like that walk by, I would consider that to be almost dereliction of duties, because it is our responsibility to do our job. And that is part of our job."

The North Carolina Attorney General's Office has not decided whether to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court, but police officers who spoke with WRAL said they hope the state's highest court will get a chance to review this ruling.