On December 9th, 2014, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals decided the Stiegel v. Collins [i], which serves as an excellent review of the law pertaining to reasonable suspicion and reasonable force during a Terry Stop.  The relevant facts of Stiegel, taken directly from the case, are as follows:

Steven M. Stiegel (“Stiegel” or “Appellant”) was hunting with his friend Nolan Majcher (“Majcher”) on private property located in North Strabane Township, Pennsylvania. Id. Stiegel and Majcher are both licensed to hunt and possess firearms. Around 11:00 pm, the men’s hunting was interrupted by Officer Matthew Russell Collins (“Collins”). Collins has been an officer with the Peters Township Police Department since 1995. Peters Township neighbors North Strabane Township.

Collins was working as the shift supervisor for the Peters Township Police Department that evening. Id. While Collins was traveling to the scene of a reported domestic disturbance, he noticed a single vehicle parked near a pull-off on North Spring Valley Road. The presence of the vehicle seemed both “unusual” and “suspicious” to Collins, as the vehicle was parked (1) several hundred yards from any residences, (2) at nighttime in a rural, unlit area, and (3) in an area where Collins himself had encountered criminal activity in the past. Further, the owner of the land where the car was parked had previously complained to Collins about trespassing and other illegal activity occurring on his property. He had asked Collins to “keep an eye out” for trespassers and other criminal activity. Id. Because of his suspicions, Collins decided to approach the vehicle to assess the situation.

As Collins approached the stopped vehicle in his squad car, he saw Majcher sitting on the hillside, wearing camouflage, with a shotgun in his lap. Majcher’s shotgun was pointed in Collins’s general direction. Collins stated that he was concerned that Majcher was either preparing for a home invasion or to commit suicide. Collins then pulled his squad car next to the stopped vehicle. He did not activate the squad car’s emergency lights or announce himself as an officer. Even without the emergency lights or announcement, Majcher surmised that Collins was affiliated with law enforcement.

As he approached Majcher, Collins instructed him to place his weapon on the ground. Rather than complying with Collins’s request, Majcher stood up and took a few steps toward Collins.  As Majcher approached, he was still holding his shotgun, albeit in a vertical position. At that point, Collins aggressively repeated his command for Majcher to place his weapon on the ground; he simultaneously unholstered his service pistol and pointed it at Majcher. Majcher then complied with Collins’s request and placed his shotgun on the ground. He approached the squad car with his hands raised to shoulder-height, identified himself, and explained that he and a friend—Stiegel—were fox hunting on the property with the property owner’s permission.

After Majcher mentioned Stiegel, Collins scanned the field using his personal flashlight and observed Stiegel holding a shotgun. Id. Collins then aimed his service weapon at Stiegel and instructed him to drop his shotgun or else he would be shot. In Stiegel’s deposition, he testified that he never saw a gun pointed at him because of the glare from Collins’s flashlight. As Stiegel approached Collins and Majcher, Collins determined that both men were complying with his requests. He then holstered his firearm before Stiegel reached his car. Collins inspected Stiegel’s identification, the three men had a brief conversation, and then Collins left the scene. The entire encounter lasted approximately five to ten minutes. Neither Steigel nor Majcher was issued a citation, and the parties agree that the two men were legally hunting on the premises that evening.

After the incident, Stiegel lodged both formal and informal complaints against Collins with the Peters Township Police Department. The department conducted an internal investigation of the incident. After the investigation concluded that Collins did not violate any department policies, Stiegel filed a three-count Complaint in federal district court alleging violations of his constitutional rights. [ii]

Stiegel sued the township and the officer in federal court and alleged violations of his constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment.  The district court granted summary judgment for the township and the officer and Stiegel appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

On appeal, the three issues were as follows:

  1. Whether the officer’s stop of Stiegel amounted to a de facto arrest;
  2. Whether the officer used excessive force when he pointed his gun at Stiegel; and
  3. Whether the township is liable to Stiegel for authorizing the officer’s actions.

As to the first issue, the court first observed that an officer needs reasonable suspicion of criminal activity in order to briefly detain a person to investigate.  The court stated:

One type of police-citizen interaction that constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment is an investigatory stop. See Terry v. Ohio, 293 U.S. 1, 16 (1968) (“It must be recognized that whenever a police officer accosts an individual and restrains his freedom to walk away, he has ‘seized’ that person.”). Investigatory, or Terry, stops must be justified by reasonable suspicion. Id. at 21. Reasonable suspicion is measured through an analysis of the “totality of the circumstances” surrounding the investigatory stop. United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7 (1989) (quoting United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417 (1981)). To establish reasonable suspicion, “the police officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant [the seizure].” Terry, 293 U.S. at 21. Reasonable suspicion is a less demanding standard than probable cause, yet it still requires more than an officer’s mere suspicions or hunches. Sokolow, 490 U.S. at 7. [iii]

In this case, both plaintiff and officers agree that Stiegel was detained.  Steigel argued that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion.  Further, he argued that, when the officer pointed his gun at him, it amounted to a de facto arrest without probable cause.  Regarding the de facto arrest claim, the court stated:

There is no bright-line rule establishing that an officer’s display of his service weapon automatically elevates an investigatory stop into an arrest. Baker v. Monroe Twp., 50 F.3d 1186, 1193 (3d Cir. 2005). There were no other elements of a typical arrest present in this case other than Collins’s temporary use of his service weapon. Collins did not handcuff the men, he did not issue them a citation, and the entire encounter lasted only five to ten minutes. We therefore agree with the District Court that this encounter is best characterized as an investigatory stop. Stiegel, 2014 WL 695571, at *10. [iv]

As to whether there was sufficient reasonable suspicion to justify the stop, the court noted that the officer observed a vehicle parked in an unusual location at 11:00pm on an unlit, dead end road.  Further, this was an area where he knew criminal activity had occurred in the past.  Upon approaching the vehicle to investigate, he observed Majcher who was carrying a shotgun.  He also saw Stiegel carrying a shotgun.  These facts provided the officer with sufficient reasonable suspicion to briefly detain Majcher and Stiegel to confirm or dispel his suspicion.

The court then examined the second issue:  Whether the officer used excessive force when he pointed his gun at Majcher and Stiegel at the beginning of the detention.  The court of appeals stated that the objective reasonableness test under Graham v. Connor [v] should be used to evaluate the use of force issue.  The court stated:

Despite the fact-intensive nature of this inquiry, the Court has articulated three factors that serve as guideposts for determining whether the use of force was reasonable in a given case: (1) the severity of the crime at issue, (2) whether the suspect poses an imminent threat to the safety of the police or others in the vicinity, and (3) whether the suspect attempts to resist arrest or flee the scene.Id. This Circuit has found that other factors may be relevant as well, including “the possibility that the persons subject to the police action are themselves violent or dangerous, the duration of the action, whether the action takes place in the context of effecting an arrest, the possibility that the suspect may be armed, and the number of persons with whom the police officers must contend at one time.” Sharrar v. Felsing, 128 F.3d 810, 822 (3d Cir. 1997). [vi] [emphasis added]

In applying the facts of this case to factors from Graham v. Connor, the court noted that the first factor was the least clear.  Initially, the officer suspected that the Majcher may have been preparing for a home invasion or suicide, both of which are severe and violent.  However, the court noted that it is unclear how long the officer believed that to be the case.  However, the court also stated that the second and third factors from Graham, where much more clear in this case.  As to the second factor, the court noted that the officer was outnumbered by two men armed with shotguns.  Certainly, the officer was reasonable in his belief they posed a serious threat.  As to the third factor, Majcher, armed with a shotgun, did not immediately comply with the officer’s command to place his weapon on the ground.  The court further stated:

The additional factors described by this Circuit in Sharrar also compel a finding that Collins’s use of force was justified. First, from Collins’s perspective, there was a possibility that Stiegel and Majcher were violent or dangerous, as Collins came across them at night, in a remote location that he associated with criminal activity. Further, Collins did not arrest either suspect, and the entire encounter between Collins and the two men lasted only five to ten minutes. Finally, both Stiegel and Majcher were armed, and they outnumbered Collins. [vii]

Additionally, the court examined various case law that involved officers pointing guns at suspects during investigative detention.  The court examined both sides of the issue.  As to cases where courts have held pointing guns at suspects was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, the court stated:

Several circuits have held that it is not a constitutional violation for a police officer to point a gun at an individual who poses a reasonable threat of danger or violence to police. One example of this situation occurred where an officer was alone with three individuals suspected of criminal activity. Courson v. McMillian, 939 F.2d 1479, 1483-84, 1496 (11th Cir. 1991). There, because the officer was outnumbered and the individuals were belligerent, the Eleventh Circuit found the officer was justified in displaying his weapon. Id. Similarly, this Circuit found that there was a reasonable threat of danger where officers were arresting four men who were suspected of drug involvement and violence. Sharrar v. Felsing, 128 F.3d 810, 822 (3d Cir. 1997). In Sharrar, we determined that the threat level posed by the situation was sufficient to justify “calling over twenty officers to the scene, including a SWAT team armed with machine guns and an FBI hostage negotiator.” Id. at 821. While we acknowledged in Sharrar that the officers’ conduct “appear[ed] to be more akin to the Rambo-type behavior associated with police in overdramatized B movies or TV shows,” we still found that it did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation. Id. at 822. [viii]

The court also examined cases where courts have held that pointing guns at suspect was not reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.  The court stated:

Similarly, courts have found that it is a constitutional violation for a police officer to point a gun at an individual who does not pose a reasonable threat of danger or violence to police. Several of these cases involved an officer drawing a weapon on an unarmed child. See, e.g., Motley v. Parks, 432 F.3d 1072, 1089 (9th Cir. 2002) (en banc) (finding excessive force where officer trained a firearm on an infant during a sweep of a gang member’s house); Holland v. Harrington, 268 F.3d 1179, 1192-93 (10th Cir. 2001) (finding excessive force where officers “continu[ed] to hold the children directly at gunpoint after the officers had gained complete control of the situation”); McDonald v. Haskins, 966 F.2d 292, 294-95 (7th Cir. 1992) (finding excessive force where officer held a gun to the head of a nine-year-old child who was not suspected of any crime during a search of the child’s family home).

Other cases have found excessive force where officers train their guns on compliant adults who pose no threat to the safety of the police. For example, the Seventh Circuit found excessive force where an officer, in the course of executing a search warrant based on a nonviolent crime, “wield[ed] a 9-millimeter submachine gun, which he used to detain various people at the search site.” Baird v. Renbarger, 576 F.3d 340, 342, 344-45 (7th Cir. 2009). Other courts have found excessive force in similar circumstances. See, e.g., Robinson v. Solano Cty., 278 F.3d 1007, 1010, 1014 (9th Cir. 2002) (finding excessive force where two officers pointed guns from point-blank range at the head of individual suspected of a misdemeanor); Baker v. Monroe Twp., 50 F.3d 1186, 1193-94 (3d Cir. 1995) (finding excessive force where police held suspect’s family members, two of whom were minors, on the ground at gunpoint while they searched the alleged suspect’s house); Brown v. City of Milwaukee, 288 F. Supp. 2d 962, 972-73 (E.D. Wisc. 2003) (finding excessive force where police surrounded suspect’s car, pointed multiple guns at her, shouted obscenities, used sensory overload tactics, and injured suspect). [ix]

After analysis to the factors from Graham v. Connor, and a comparison to other cases on both sides of the issue of gun pointing, the court held that the officer was justified in pointing his gun at both Majcher and Stiegel while he “assessed and gained control over the situation.” [x]

The court then examined the third issue of whether the township was liable for authorizing the officer’s conduct.  The court stated:

[T]he Supreme Court has held that courts cannot “authorize[ an] award of damages against a [municipality] based on the actions of one of its officers when in fact the jury has concluded that the officer inflicted no constitutional harm.” City of Los Angeles v. Heller, 475 U.S. 796, 799 (1986) (per curiam). Because we find that Stiegel has not suffered any constitutional harm at the hands of Collins, “the fact that the departmental regulations might have authorized the use of constitutionally excessive force is quite beside the point.” Id. [xi]

Thus, since the officer did not violate the constitution, the township cannot be liable since the plaintiffs did not suffer a violation.

Therefore, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the district court.


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. 14-1631 (3rd Cir. Unpublished Decided December 9, 2014)

[ii] Id. at 2-4

[iii] Id. at 7

[iv] Id. at 7-8

[v] 490 U.S. 386 (1989)

[vi] Stiegel at 9-10

[vii] Id. at 12-13

[viii] Id. at 10

[ix] Id. at 11-12

[x] Id. at 14

[xi] Id.

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