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Court Tosses Hells Angel Search That Found Guns

(CN) - Police cannot frisk motorcyclists for weapons even if they are wearing gang insignia and speeding through rival territory, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled.

On the morning of June 4, 2011, David Abel was sporting a Hells Angels vest while he and another motorcyclist were doing 80 mph on a 55 mph stretch of the I-95 in Delaware, a known territory of the rival gang Pagans Motorcycle Club.

Federal and state law enforcement classify the Hells Angels, the Pagans and two other groups as outlaw motorcycle gangs in the United States, calling the clubs a conduit for criminal activity.

State Trooper John Andrew Lloyd pulled Abel over to the left shoulder of the highway, and another officer stopped Abel's companion on the other side.

As recorded by Lloyd's patrol car camera, "Abel remained calm and his hands remained primarily in view on the handlebars of the motorcycle," the Superior Court found in 2011.

The footage shows that when Lloyd asked Abel where he was headed, he replied, "We're going out on a run today."

Abel maintained a "jovial" disposition as he continued to rebuff Lloyd's questions, the court found.

Lloyd asked Abel if was armed, and Abel said no, but he quickly revealed that he had two guns on him when Lloyd added that he was going to pat him down.

Lloyd then arrested Abel for speeding and two counts of carrying a concealed deadly weapon.

As a state officer trained in gang behavior, Lloyd said he knew that fights between rival gangs are violent and that Abel was unlikely to enter enemy territory unarmed.

Observing a Hells Angel speeding through Pagans territory raised a red flag, Lloyd said.

The Superior Court suppressed evidence of the firearms after agreeing with Abel that because "he did not exhibit any conduct or behavior that would create a reasonable suspicion that he was armed or dangerous."

Abel had also said "that an affiliation with a motorcycle gang, in and of itself, is insufficient to provide a reasonable, articulable suspicion that an individual is armed and dangerous."

Delaware countered that "the combination of Abel's [Hells Angels] vest and his refusal to reveal his destination were enough to warrant the pat down for weapons under the totality of the circumstances."

A divided panel of the state Supreme Court affirmed suppression last week.

"If we agree with the state's position, then the law of Delaware would be that whenever an officer pulls over a Hells Angels member wearing his organization's colors for a traffic violation in the state of Delaware, the officer may frisk the motorcyclist for weapons, because the State of Delaware is rival gang territory," Chief Justice Myron Steele wrote for the majority.

Lloyd had the right to ask Abel where he was headed, but Abel also had the right to refuse to answer without being searched, according to the ruling.

Lloyd's prior experience also did not give him grounds for reasonable suspicion, the court found, noting there was no evidence of nearby gang behavior.

"Lloyd had no personal, particularized experience with Abel, and extremely limited experience with the Hells Angels," Steele wrote. "At best, Lloyd extrapolated his general suspicions about the Pagans and applied them to Abel."

The trooper had even admitted at trial that he "encounter[s] Pagans all the time," but that his "experience with [Hells] Angels is very limited" since there is no such branch of the gang in Delaware.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Henry Ridgely said that the circumstances gave Lloyd "the level of suspicion necessary to constitute reasonable suspicion."

Lloyd was highly trained in and familiar with gang behavior because he worked in Pagan territory, according to the dissent.

"He knew from his training that members of organized, criminal gangs are more likely to assault police officers," Ridgely wrote.

Abel meanwhile "explained no emergency circumstances to justify his dangerous speed that put both his life and his driving privileges at risk," the judge added. "His conduct was consistent with being on gang business."

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