A neo-Nazi gang member in Utah has lost his legal challenge to the practice of stop-and-frisk in the state, after an appeals court ruled that police officers had justifiable cause to search him after he behaved belligerently during a traffic stop in 2017.
The man, Bryant Robert Mitchell, was arrested in July 2017 after the police searched him during a traffic stop and found he was carrying heroin and a knife, which he was barred from having because he was a felon. He later pleaded guilty to drug possession with intent to distribute and was sentenced to five years to life in prison.
But before his trial, Mitchell’s lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence in the case, arguing that officers did not have reason to search him during the stop. Prosecutors argued that the search was reasonable because officers saw Mitchell shouting expletives at a bystander and knew him to be a member of a white supremacist gang, the Soldiers of Aryan Culture.
A district court agreed in May 2018, and on Friday, the Utah Court of Appeals concurred, although it said the case was “close.”
“Mitchell’s status as a member of SAC is not enough by itself, and neither is Mitchell’s profane salutation toward the individual in the parking lot,” the court wrote in its ruling.
“But under the unique circumstances of this case,” the court continued, “those two factors, viewed together, gave rise to a reasonable suspicion that Mitchell might be armed — after all, he was a member of a violent gang and the officers reasonably believed that he was acting aggressively toward, and about to start a physical altercation with, a bystander.”
A lawyer for Mitchell did not respond to a message seeking comment Monday.
The appeals court described Mitchell’s case as a justifiable example of stop-and-frisk, an aggressive policing tactic that was ended in New York City after a judge ruled that it violated the constitutional rights of black and Latino people, who were disproportionately stopped. The program gave police officers sweeping authority to stop and search anyone they suspected of a crime.
The practice re-entered the national spotlight last week after Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York who is now running for the Democratic presidential nomination, apologized for his long-standing support of the strategy. The Supreme Court ruled in the 1968 case Terry v. Ohio that the practice is not unconstitutional if the police officer involved has reason to believe that the person stopped is armed and dangerous.
Mitchell’s encounter with the police began when officers pulled over a 1982 Chevrolet Blazer in Ogden, Utah, that made two turns without signaling, according to court documents. The officers began to follow the car and decided to make a traffic stop after they checked its license plate number and found the car to be uninsured, which the appeals court said was a sound reason to make the stop.
But Mitchell argued that it was not reasonable for officers to believe he was armed and dangerous because he was wearing only a pair of shorts, leaving him few places to conceal a weapon. He also did not have his hands in his pockets and he complied with all the officers’ commands, according to court documents. During the search, officers found the knife and the heroin in his pockets.
At the time of the traffic stop, Mitchell was standing up in the front seat of the car and shouting a “profane salutation” at a man in a convenience store parking lot, according to court documents. His upper body and face are covered in neo-Nazi tattoos, including a swastika wrapped around an iron cross on the back of his head; a code for “Heil Hitler” tattooed in large print on his stomach; and the number “187,” the California Penal Code section for murder, tattooed on his face.
During the stop, officers also arrested another passenger in the car who had an outstanding arrest warrant, which the court said gave the officers increased reason to believe Mitchell could pose a danger.
“When we consider the circumstances of this case in their totality, we are persuaded that the officers had reasonable suspicion that Mitchell might be armed and dangerous, and were therefore justified in conducting a Terry frisk,” the court wrote.