SALT LAKE CITY — A state appeals court has affirmed a drug conviction against an Ogden man, simultaneously upholding a stop-and-frisk practice as well.
In an opinion released Nov. 21, the Utah Court of Appeals upheld a charge against Bryant Robert Mitchell, 43, who pleaded guilty to a felony drug charge in 2018 after being arrested a year prior.
According to the opinion, Mitchell was approached by police in Ogden after officers followed a car Mitchell was in while officers were in an unmarked squad car. Mitchell reportedly looked “very upset” and “aggressive” while yelling profanities at someone in a convenient store parking lot. He had just opened a car door and was yelling toward the person in the parking lot when officers approached him.
An officer quickly recognized Mitchell, whom officers said was a member of a white supremacist gang. Police also spoke with the driver, Mitchell, and a man in the backseat in the car and realized the man in the back had two active warrants for his arrest. Police also asked if they could search the car, and the driver agreed to a search.
Immediately after Mitchell got out of the car, officers frisked him and reportedly found a switchblade knife in his shorts. Later, officers found a ball of heroin.
Mitchell was charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, a first-degree felony, and a felony weapons charge. Mitchell had a prior felony record and was not able to possess a weapon.
After being charged, Mitchell filed a motion to suppress any evidence found after he was frisked, including the knife and the heroin, saying the officer did not have a reasonable articulable suspicion to support the initial frisk.
During a hearing for the motion to suppress, one of the officers said one of the reasons he searched Mitchell was because “gang members typically carry weapons,” the opinion says. Mitchell testified that the man he was yelling at was an old friend he had not seen in a while.
The district court ultimately denied Mitchell’s motion, ruling that the officers had acted reasonably when they pulled over the car and searched Mitchell. The court cited the fact that Mitchell was a known member of a white supremacist gang and how he was acting aggressively toward another person as reasons to justify the traffic stop and search.
Mitchell later pleaded guilty to the drug charge, and prosecutors dropped the weapon charge. He appealed his case to the state appeals court, saying the district court had erred in allowing the evidence after he was frisked.
The appeals court points out that Mitchell was correct when he argued that he did not display any indication that he was armed at the time of the stop. The court noted that Mitchell was only wearing shorts at the time of the stop, and it was not visually apparent he had any weapons on his person. Mitchell was also compliant with every command given by officers.
However, the court indicated that the facts of the case must be viewed in their totality instead of looking at individual elements.
The appeals court found that there was reasonable suspicion by officers to think Mitchell was armed and dangerous.
The court did say that Mitchell correctly pointed out how this case did not have the usual indications of a person being armed and dangerous. Mitchell’s status as a gang member was not enough reason in itself to search him, nor was the profanity yelled at the person in the parking lot; however, when you combine the two, that would give enough “reasonable suspicion” that Mitchell could have been armed.
Following his guilty plea in 2018, Mitchell was sentenced to a term of five years to life in a state prison. He is currently in the custody of the Utah Department of Corrections.