A panel of three judges awarded Meredith Compton the 2017 Hardt Cup after the final round of the annual moot court tournament for first-year students on April 11. The judges praised both Compton and fellow finalist Kyle Nodes for their understanding of the intricate constitutional questions on appeal in U.S. v. Shaquille Robinson, and their ability to react deftly to the judges’ questions.
“You both did a fabulous job,” said Judge Stephanie Seymour of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, who served as the panel’s chief judge. “Much better than some of the lawyers we see.”
“One of the things that both of you were able to do, that I think is a real talent that took me probably 25 years to learn, is how to use the questions to springboard into your argument,” said Judge Lawrence Vilardo of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, who was in appellate practice before his nomination to the federal bench. “That’s a really tough thing to do, and both of you did it in an outstanding way.”
Judge Terrence Boyle of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina noted the importance of the case argued by the students. In 2016 a panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Robinson’s initial conviction, but on January 23 the Fourth Circuit issued an en banc decision upholding the arrest and setting up a possible Supreme Court appeal.
“I think it’s a very important case at a critical intersection of some constitutional rights,” Boyle said.
The balance among the Second Amendment right to carry firearms, Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, and the ability of police officers to ensure their own safety, was the focus of much of the discussion. Nodes argued on behalf of the government, and Compton argued on behalf of the defendant, Robinson, who was arrested and indicted for illegal possession of a firearm after a West Virginia traffic stop.
Having received an anonymous tip that “a black male in a bluish-greenish Toyota Camry” was seen loading a pistol in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven before concealing it in his pocket, police officers stopped Robinson’s car, which matched the description, for a seatbelt violation. They reported receiving “a weird look” from Robinson when they asked if he was carrying a weapon, and found a pistol in his pocket when they subsequently frisked him. They then recognized Robinson as a previously convicted felon, which made his carrying of the gun illegal.
Much of the conversation revolved around precedent set by the 1968 Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio. In that decision, the Court stated that a “stop-and-frisk” by police does not violate the Fourth Amendment if the officers have a reasonable belief that the person they have decided to frisk is “armed and presently dangerous.”
West Virginia’s gun laws, which allow the concealed carrying of firearms, also factored heavily into the discussion.
“This is a case about preserving the Fourth Amendment’s prohibitions against unreasonable searches, and protecting individuals from arbitrary governmental intrusion,” Compton told the judges. She based her arguments on two claims:
“First, the phrase ‘armed and presently dangerous’ as it appears in Terry v. Ohio is a disjunctive test, requiring a reasonable suspicion that an individual is armed and also dangerous,” she said. “Second, because West Virginia has determined that carrying a concealed weapon is not inherently dangerous, the officers in this case had no reasonable basis for conducting the frisk of Mr. Robinson.”
Nodes told the panel that the case was “about our law enforcement officers’ need to ensure the safety of themselves and the people around them.” An officer’s belief that an individual is carrying a concealed firearm meets the “armed and presently dangerous” criteria set by Terry, he said, regardless of the initial reason that caused officers to stop that individual. Whether someone is stopped for a seatbelt violation or drug trafficking, the carrying of a concealed firearm presents a danger to officers, Nodes argued.
“It is important that the court recognize today the inherent and unique danger involved in firearms,” he said.
Boyle asked Nodes about the effect on his argument of recent Supreme Court rulings in Second Amendment cases District of Columbia v Heller and McDonald v. Chicago.
“Those rulings did ensure that individuals do have a fundamental right to carry a firearm,” Nodes said. “But those rulings also included a fundamental understanding that firearms are dangerous.”
Compton said that the government’s argument, if accepted, would justify frisking any citizen who was legally exercising the lawful right to carry a firearm. “That is not the standard or the balance that this court struck in Terry v. Ohio,” she said, arguing that, in a state where carrying concealed weapons is legal, carrying a concealed weapon should not meet the “presently dangerous” criteria.
Compton also addressed the Heller and McDonald decisions, saying that they “recognize that there is a danger when it comes to guns, but not an inherent danger that would justify a frisk under Terry v. Ohio, and in this case, there was no specific, articulable reason to indicate that Mr. Robinson posed any sort of threat.”
The Moot Court Board is holding a discussion of U.S. v. Shaquille Robinson on April 13 at 12:30 p.m. in room 3041.