Court ruling faults police search of suspect

Staff WriterSeptember 19, 2007 

A Court of Appeals ruling Tuesday on a Wake County armed robbery case could limit how state law enforcement officers target and search suspects.

The court found that Raleigh police officer A.B. Smith unfairly searched Russell Antoine Cooper, whom Smith encountered about a quarter of a mile from a convenience store in Mini City that had just been robbed in April 2005.

Cooper, 20, had argued that the handgun Smith found on him should not be introduced at his trial because police had targeted him for his race.

Smith had heard the robbery suspect described over the radio as a black man.

Smith drove to the area and encountered Cooper about 10 minutes after the robbery and searched him, documents show.

The officer took Cooper back to the store, but the clerk failed to identify him. Cooper was then taken to the police station, where he admitted that he had lent another man his gun to rob the store.

"A black man walking in the vicinity of a store robbery is not suspicious behavior, without something else," Cooper asserted in court documents.

But the judge had allowed the evidence. Cooper was convicted as an accomplice and sentenced to five to seven years in prison.

"Should these facts be found sufficient to justify the seizure of the defendant, such factors could obviously justify the seizure of innocent citizens ... who, late at night, happen to be seen standing in an open area of a housing project or walking down a public sidewalk in a 'high drug area,' " the ruling stated.

The court did not overturn Cooper's conviction but returned it to a lower court to be reconsidered.

marti.maguire@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4841

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