Fifth Circuit judges seemed interested in the case of Black teenagers who were stopped at gunpoint, after asking law enforcement for help while searching for a lost dog.


On Tuesday, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, lawyers from the ACLU of Louisiana and Cooley LLP argued in front of a three-judge panel on behalf of Bilal Hankins, a Black teenager stopped at gunpoint moments after he and his friends had approached officers for help in finding a lost dog.

The arguments centered around the reasons behind the June 2020 stop: what gave officers Kevin Wheeler and Ramon Pierre reasonable suspicion to pull over the teens? 

Because both officers were working paid, private-security details for neighborhood patrols, the case also raises questions about the obligations that come with those patrols. In the past, officers hired by private patrols have been criticized for stopping “anyone who looks suspicious.” But if the goal of the patrols, paid for by neighbors, is a safer community, some critics have said, perhaps  training and procedures should be rooted in community-policing best practices, where officers build bonds with neighbors and are able to better hone their instincts about “normal” resident behavior, leading to fewer questionable police stops. 

“Underlying, unfortunately, what happens with policing is bias,” said Nora Ahmed, an attorney for the ACLU of Louisiana. 

This case – where three well-intentioned Black teens approached an officer for assistance, only to be viewed with suspicion – illustrates the way that biased policing can lead to lifetimes of distrust. “If we have a precedent that says if you’re Black and you ask the police for help you will be deemed a suspect, we are further entrenching the division we say doesn’t exist in this country, let alone this state, let alone this city,” Ahmed said.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Hankins’ lawyers seemed to have the panel’s attention, arguing that the officers’ rationale for the stop didn’t rise to the level of reasonable suspicion. 

This case was slotted for a hearing based on an appeal filed on December 27, after U.S. District Judge Elden Fallon from the Eastern District of Louisiana threw out Hankins’ original lawsuit, because Fallon concluded that the case did not prove the the officers used excessive force and violated Hankins’ Fourth Amendments rights. Fallon also cited qualified immunity, which typically protects officers from individual liability for their actions on the job.

As told through court testimony and filings, the narrative starts that night four years ago around 11:30 p.m., as the three teens – the youngest being just 12 years of age – searched the Hurstville neighborhood for Dutchess, a lost, sickly brown-and-white spotted chihuahua. 

Looking for assistance, Hankins said, he approached Wheeler, who was working a paid private-security detail. Hankins gave his address to Wheeler and pointed in the direction of his parents’ home, to show where he’d grown up.

But Wheeler suspected the teens’ lost dog story was made up, he testified. He called for backup and ran the black BMW’s plate through law-enforcement databases. 

The car was registered to the driver’s mother, at an address in New Orleans East. Because of crime levels in the East, the address made Wheeler even more wary, his lawyer told the court. 

Pierre, a Housing Authority of New Orleans officer who was also working paid off-duty detail, arrived in response to Wheeler’s  call for backup. Pierre and Wheeler together tailed the three teens driving slowly in the BMW, with the windows down, calling out for Dutchess. Though the officers flashed the blue police lights, the youth in the BMW – since they had just spoken with the officers – were unaware that the lights were for them, Hankins said. 

After turning a corner to get out of the patrol car’s way, they stopped, once the officers issued a command over the car’s intercom. Once the BMW pulled over, Wheeler and Pierre approached the vehicle with guns drawn, Hankins recalled.

The Hurstville police stop took place a few weeks after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, which spurred a movement drawing attention to many cases involving police brutality and excessive use of force that haunts those victimized. Because of this flawed stop, Hankins became one of those victims, his lawyers claim, and still suffers from the psychological trauma, stress – and a newfound distrust of law enforcement – that stems from the incident. 

The defendants, Wheeler and Pierre, claimed that the actions of the car, its occupants and the time of day were enough to spark suspicion.

Yet at least one of the judges on the panel expressed skepticism at that reasoning.

“Asking for help certainly doesn’t seem to be consistent with someone who is a robber,” said Judge Stephen Higginson, who’s served on the court for more than 12 years. “It’s not often I would think that robbers ask for help from the police.”