When law enforcement officers restrict a person’s freedom of movement, the officer has seized that person under the Fourth Amendment. At times, firefighters will also restrict a person’s movement, sometimes against that person’s will, for the purpose of providing medical treatment or an evaluation. On April 15, 2014, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Overton [i], which illustrates how seizure by fire personnel also implicates the Fourth Amendment.
In Overton, on or about April 29, 2012, Bennie Overton committed a car-jacking, stealing Gore’s car. Then:
Five days later, on May 4, 2012, Cincinnati Fire Department personnel (“EMS personnel”) received a 911 call for emergency medical assistance, relating to a “reported unconscious person in a vehicle at the gas pumps” of a gas station on Gilbert Avenue. Upon arriving at the gas station, the EMS personnel saw their patient (later identified as Overton) leaning back in the driver’s seat of a silver sedan (later identified as Gore’s 2004 Nissan Maxima). The patient was “in the driver’s seat, eyes closed, unresponsive, the doors closed.” After blowing the fire truck’s air horn and administering ammonia inhalants in unsuccessful attempts to rouse Overton, the EMS personnel employed a sternum rub technique to wake him.
Upon waking, Overton seemed confused and disoriented and grabbed the shirt of the firefighter who administered the sternum rub. While the EMS personnel were talking to Overton and attempting to ascertain his condition, he shifted his legs in his seat and exposed the handle of a .45 caliber pistol. At this point, the EMS personnel began to get nervous for their safety and the safety of those around them. They accordingly removed Overton from the car and secured the pistol.
On June 6, 2012, a grand jury indicted Overton for the following crimes: one count of carjacking, one count of using, carrying, or brandishing a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, and one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Overton filed a motion to suppress the pistol discovered by the EMS personnel, which the district court denied after an evidentiary hearing. Overton then pled guilty to the felon in possession of a firearm count on August 13, 2012, but proceeded to a jury trial on the carjacking and brandishing offenses. The trial took place over three days in August of 2012, and the jury returned guilty verdicts on both remaining counts. The district court then sentenced Overton to a within-Guidelines term of 199 months’ imprisonment, five years of supervised release, a $1,000 fine, and the forfeiture of various items. Overton filed a Notice of Appeal the day after the district court entered judgment, and this appeal followed. [ii]
Overton raised numerous issues on appeal, one of which that the gun should have been suppressed because it was the fruit of an illegal seizure of his person by firefighters when they detained him for about 30 seconds after they awoke him using the sternum rub. The firefighters testified that they would not have let Overton leave immediately after wakening him because they feared his health was in jeopardy.
The court of appeals first stated:
As the Supreme Court repeatedly has held, a person is seized for Fourth Amendment purposes when a reasonable person in his circumstances would not feel free to leave. E.g., Michigan v. Chesternut, 486 U.S. 567, 573 (1988) (“[T]he police can be said to have seized an individual ‘only if, in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.'” (quoting United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 554 (1980) (plurality opinion))); Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 19 (1968) (“Only when the officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen may we conclude that a ‘seizure’ has occurred.”). [iii]
The court of appeals then stated, even if a seizure occurred in Overton’s case, the issue is whether that seizure is reasonable or unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
The court then examined facts relevant to whether the seizure was reasonable. The court noted that the fire fighters detained Overton, who was unconscious upon their arrival, to render medical treatment, not to obtain evidence against him or arrest him. The court then held that this brief detention that was intended to render medical aid for Overton’s benefit, was not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. As such, since the detention led to the discovery of the firearm, the firearm was admissible.
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] No. 13-3274 (6th Cir. 2014 Unpublished)
[ii] Id. at 3
[iii] Id. at 11