George Wingate was driving in Stafford County, Virginia, in the early morning hours of April 25, 2017, when his car's engine light came on. A former mechanic, Wingate pulled over, popped the hood, and began checking things out. Stafford County Sheriff's Deputy Scott Fulford, who happened to be cruising by, noticed the parked vehicle and pulled over to offer his assistance.
That's when things took a turn for the worse. According to the deputy's account, he became suspicious of Wingate and demanded to see some form of identification. Wingate, who had done nothing wrong, flatly refused. The officer's microphone captured their exchange.
"Have I committed a crime?" Wingate demanded.
"No. I didn't say you did," the officer replied.
"Am I being detained? If I'm not being detained, then I'm free to go," Wingate insisted.
"You're not free to go until you identify yourself to me," the officer declared.
Wingate ultimately was arrested for violating a Stafford County ordinance that made it a crime to refuse an officer's request for ID "if the surrounding circumstances are such as to indicate to a reasonable man that the public safety requires such identification." After a local prosecutor dropped the charge, Wingate sued, arguing that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated by the bogus detention and arrest.
In February, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit agreed that Wingate's rights were violated. "To be sure, officers may always request someone's identification during a voluntary encounter," the court said in Wingate v. Fulford. "But they may not compel it by threat of criminal sanction. Allowing a county to criminalize a person's silence outside the confines of a valid seizure would press our conception of voluntary encounters beyond its logical limits. We therefore decline to do so here."
If Wingate had been lawfully detained, the 4th Circuit said, the officer could have required him to show ID. But as the court detailed, Fulford had neither the "reasonable and particularized suspicion" needed to detain Wingate nor the "probable cause" needed to arrest him.
Fulford stated in a deposition that Wingate raised a "red flag" when he exited his vehicle and approached the officer's cruiser. "But the notion that the driver of a broken-down vehicle creates suspicion of criminal activity by approaching the officer trying to render him aid, put candidly, defies reason," the appeals court observed. "Although we generally defer to officers' training and experience, we withhold that deference when failing to do so would erode necessary safeguards against 'arbitrary and boundless' police prejudgments."
Fulford also deemed Wingate's all-black clothing "suspicious." Yet as the 4th Circuit noted, "wearing dark clothing is often as innocuous as following the latest fashion trends."
The only downside to the ruling is that the deputy was granted qualified immunity for Wingate's arrest. Under that controversial doctrine, state officials are routinely shielded from civil liability if their actions were not explicitly condemned in a previous court decision. "Until today," the 4th Circuit said, "no federal court has prescribed the constitutional limits" of the ordinance Fulford cited. Thus, "a reasonable officer could infer—albeit incorrectly—that the [Fourth Amendment's] requirements did not apply."