On December 21, 2018, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Bey[i], in which the court examined whether officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they continued to detain a suspect after seeing that he did not meet the description of the suspect that they sought.
In Bey, Philadelphia police officers stopped a car for failure to stop at a stop sign. The vehicle continued into a high crime neighborhood before finally coming to a stop. The vehicle was occupied by three males.
After smelling marijuana, officers conducted a search of the vehicle. They located a handgun on the rear floorboard where one of the passengers had been sitting. At this point, the backseat passenger, and front seat passenger, Robinson, fled on foot. The backseat passenger was immediately apprehended but Robinson initially escaped.
Officers broadcasted a lookout over the radio and described Robinson, the person who fled, as a light skinned, black male, approximately 6’0” to 6’1”, 160-170 pounds, wearing dark blue pants and a red hoodie. The officer that provided the lookout made no mention of facial hair. Responding officers arrived and viewed a photograph of Robinson on a patrol car’s computer. Robinson was 21 years old.
Officers, based on their experience in the area, believed that Robinson was most likely to flee toward Lid’s Café, which was approximately one block away. Officers went to that location and approximately one minute after viewing Robinson’s photograph, observed a male exiting Lid’s walking away from them, wearing black sweatpants and a red puffer jacket with a hood. The officers could not see the male’s face because he was walking away but they did notice that he closely resembled the clothing description of the suspect, Robinson.
The officers drew their weapons and ordered the male to show his hands. He stopped, put his hands in the air, and turned around to face the officers. The black male, who was not Robinson, was dark skinned, 32 years old, had long beard, and was 200 pounds.
Officers conducted a frisk of the male, identified as Bey, and located a handgun in his waistband. He was subsequently indicted under federal law for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Bey filed a motion to suppress the firearm, which the district court denied. Bey appealed the denial of his motion to suppress to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
The encounter with Bey was viewed as two phases: (1) the initial stop where he was ordered to show his hands, and (2) the continued detention and frisk of Bey after he turned around and officers were able to see his face and physical characteristics.
The court of appeals then set out to determine if the initial stop of Bey was supported by reasonable suspicion. The court stated
[R]easonable suspicion unequivocally demands that the detaining officers must have a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped for criminal activity. The ultimate question is whether the record is sufficient to establish that police had a reasonable suspicion based on articulated facts that would justify the search or seizure of the individual in question.[ii]
The court then reasoned that Bey was first seen just moments after a suspect fled the area, in an area that officer’s thought was a likely place for the suspect to run. Further, Bey was wearing clothing that closely resembled the clothing worn by the suspect. Finally, officers could not initially see Bey’s face at the time they ordered him to stop and show his hands. Based upon these facts, the court of appeals held that the initial stop was supported by sufficient reasonable suspicion, and the police were justified in drawing their weapons and ordering Bey to stop and show his hands.
The court then examined the officer’s conduct when Bey turned around and showed his hands as ordered.
The court noted the legal principles that apply and stated
The brief investigative stop allowed under Terry, is just that; a brief stop to allow police to investigate. The initial stop does not justify an arrest, prolonged detention, or a stop that lasts any longer than is reasonably necessary to investigate. As the Supreme Court has explained: “[A]n investigative detention must be temporary and last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop.” Moreover, “[i]t is the State’s burden to demonstrate that the seizure it seeks to justify on the basis of a reasonable suspicion was sufficiently limited in scope and duration to satisfy the conditions of an investigative seizure.” “Once reasonable suspicion has been dispelled, even a very brief extension of detention without consent or reasonable suspicion violates the Fourth Amendment.” An investigative stop must therefore cease once reasonable suspicion dissipates. “[W]ithout additional reasonable suspicion, [an] officer must allow the seized person to depart once the purpose of the stop has concluded.”[iii]
At this point, the court noted that the officers could see that Bey had a long beard and the initial officers made no mention of a beard when they broadcasted the lookout over the radio. The court also noted that the state failed to produce, as evidence, the photograph that the officer’s originally viewed on the car’s computer. Further, the court noted that Bey was dark skinned, rather than light skinned, approximately 200 pounds, considerably heavier than the suspect who was 160-170 pounds, and over 10 years older than the suspect they were in search of.
The court then held that
When [the officers] seized Bey, they had reasonable suspicion to believe that he [may have been] Robinson.” But the seizure should have terminated once that suspicion was no longer reasonable. Thus, once Bey turned around, officers should have noticed the clear differences in appearance and age between the two men.[iv]
As such, the court of appeals reversed the district court’s denial of the motion to suppress.
[i] No. 17-2945 (3rd Cir. Decided December 21, 2018)
[ii] Id. at 10 (internal citations omitted)
[iii] Id. at 12 (internal citations omitted)
[iv] Id. at 13