©2012 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)
On March 7, 2012, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Jones [i] which serves as an excellent review of the law related to seizures of persons and factors that amount to reasonable suspicion to detain a person. The facts of Jones are as follows:
Memphis Police Officer Robert Strickland was on patrol on Latham Street in Memphis, Tennessee, an area known for extensive drug trafficking and violent crimes. He observed a group of men in front of an apartment house, and two males standing apart from the group. The two males appeared to be engaging in a hand-to-hand transaction. Officer Strickland had observed more than 200 hand-to-hand drug transactions in his nine years as a Memphis police officer, and he grew suspicious the men were exchanging cash for drugs. Strickland stopped and exited his car to investigate. Defendant immediately began running away “like a sprinter.” Strickland called to Defendant to stop several times, but Defendant kept running. Officer Strickland gave chase, and observed Defendant drop a brown paper bag and other unidentifiable items. After chasing Defendant approximately 200 yards, Strickland caught up to him in an alley. Strickland pushed Defendant down and handcuffed him. As he was doing so, Strickland noticed Defendant’s pants had fallen down and his belt was unfastened.
Two other officers soon arrived in response to Strickland’s call for backup. One officer retraced Defendant’s flight path to search for dropped items. He found an ammunition holder containing twenty-five rounds, an ammunition pouch, a holster, and a loaded .38 caliber revolver. Officer Strickland also found a brown paper bag containing a cold, open beer near where he observed Defendant drop a brown paper bag. The officers read Defendant his Miranda rights, and he admitted to possessing the firearm. [ii]
Jones later filed a motion to suppress and argued, among other things, that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to detain him. The district court denied the motion and he entered a plea with the right appeal the denial of the motion.
On appeal, Jones first argued that the police officer “had no particularized and objective basis for suspecting that he was committing or had committed a criminal offense” when the officer initiated the stop.
At the outset the court noted:
We have identified three types of police-citizen encounters: “(1) the consensual encounter, which may be initiated without any objective level of suspicion; (2) the investigative detention, which, if non-consensual, must be supported by a reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity; and (3) the arrest, valid only if supported by probable cause.” United States v. Smith, 594 F.3d 530, 535 (6th Cir. 2010) (quoting United States v. Waldon, 206 F.3d 597, 602 (6th Cir. 2000)). [iii]
Here, Jones acknowledged that he was subject to an investigative detention, rather than an arrest. However, he argues that the officer lacked sufficient reasonable suspicion to detain him. As such, the Sixth Circuit stated that it must first determine when the detention actually occurred.
It should be noted that, according to the Fourth Amendment, an investigative detention is a “seizure” of a person. The United States Supreme Court has stated that:
A person is seized within the Fourth Amendment’s meaning when an officer “by means of physical force or show of authority, terminates or restrains his freedom of movement through means intentionally applied.” Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249, 254, 127 S. Ct. 2400, 168 L. Ed. 2d 132 (2007). [iv]
The Sixth Circuit further recognized that:
The Supreme Court has held police pursuit is not a seizure until the suspect actually stops. California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621, 629, 111 S. Ct. 1547, 113 L. Ed. 2d 690 (1991). In Hodari D., the Court said the term “seizure” “does not remotely apply . . . to the prospect of a policeman yelling ‘Stop, in the name of the law!’ at a fleeing form that continues to flee.” Id. at 626. [v]
In light of the rules set forth by the Supreme Court, the Sixth Circuit held that Jones was not seized until the officer physically restrained him since he did not obey the officer’s commands to stop.
Next, the Sixth Circuit had to determine whether the officer had sufficient reasonable suspicion to detain Jones at the time he actually seized Jones. The court first stated:
An officer may conduct an investigative stop only if he has “reasonable, articulable suspicion that the person has been, is, or is about to be engaged in criminal activity.” United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696, 702, 103 S. Ct. 2637, 77 L. Ed. 2d 110 (1983). [vi]
The court then stated that there were four specific facts on which the officer relied in articulating the reasonable suspicion for Jones’ stop. One, Jones was in a high crime area known for drug activity. Two, the officer saw Jones and another man engage in an apparent hand-to-hand drug transaction. Three, Jones ran from the officer when he exited his police car. Four, Jones discarded items as he was fleeing.
In making a determination of whether the above four facts support a finding of reasonable suspicion the court examined the United States Supreme Court case of Illinois v. Wardlow. [vii] The court noted that although the Supreme Court stated that presence in a high crime area, “standing alone” does not create reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, it is still a relevant factor that officers can consider when making a decision regarding reasonable suspicion. As such, the officer in Jones, was permitted to validly consider this as one relevant factor.
Continuing with the analysis of Wardlow, the Sixth Circuit next stated:
In Wardlow, the Supreme Court held officers had reasonable suspicion of criminal activity based solely on presence in a high-crime area combined with “headlong flight” from police. Wardlow, 528 U.S. at 124. [viii]
As such, the court held that Jones presence in the high crime area, plus his flight from the officer amounted to sufficient reasonable suspicion to justify Jones’ detention.
However, the court noted that Officer Strickland also had two additional facts that further strengthened his reasonable suspicion. The first additional fact was that the officer observed Jones conduct an apparent hand-to-hand drug transaction. The court cited the Sixth Circuit case of the United States v. Paulette [ix] and stated:
In Paulette, we said, “[T]he officers had a reasonable suspicion that Paulette was engaged in criminal activity based upon his hand movements consistent with drug-dealing activity, efforts to evade the police upon noticing them, and presence in a high crime area.” [x]
The second additional fact was that Jones was discarding items as he fled. The court stated:
[Officer] Strickland observed Defendant discard several items as he fled. Strickland could reasonably believe Defendant was attempting to rid himself of contraband, even if Strickland could not immediately identify the items. Two other circuits have concluded a suspect’s action in dropping an unidentified object contributes to reasonable suspicion. United States v. Carter, 360 F.3d 1235, 1240 (10th Cir. 2004) (suspect dropped something while talking to officers); United States v. Dupree, 202 F.3d 1046, 1049 (8th Cir. 2000) (suspect dropped small object off a bridge before talking to police). [xi]
As such, the Sixth Circuit held that Officer Strickland had “ample reasonable suspicion” that Jones was engaged in criminal activity at the time he seized him.
Thus, the court affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 4700 (6th Cir. Decided March 7, 2012)
[ii] Id. at 2-3
[iii] Id. at 6
[v] Id. at 7
[vi] Id. at 8
[vii] 528 U.S. 119 (2000)
[viii] Jones at 9
[ix] 457 F.3d 601, 606 (6th Cir. 2006)
[x] Id. at 9-10
[xi] Id. at 10