On July 19, 2019, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided Watkins v. Miller[i], in which the court examined whether, in response to a 911 call regarding a man in a parking lot, an officer violated the Fourth or Fourteenth Amendment when he stopped the man, issued him a criminal trespass warning, and threatened to arrest him if he did not leave the private parking lot. The relevant facts of Watkins, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
Watkins alleged that, on August 30, 2014, he was in a shopping center parking lot when Miller approached him and said that he had received an anonymous call from someone who did not want Watkins on the property. Miller told Watkins that he was trespassing and instructed him to leave the property and not return. Watkins asked Miller if the owners of the property had said he was trespassing, and Miller responded that he did not know who had called.
In response to Miller’s instruction, Watkins refused to leave the property, arguing that Miller did not have the authority or authorization to order Watkins to leave the property. Specifically, Watkins claimed that Miller lacked the authority to make such an order under Florida law because there were no “no trespassing” signs, and Miller was not the property owner or a person authorized by the owner. Another officer arrived and repeated to Watkins that he was trespassing. Watkins asked the officers to verify that there was no record on file with the Sheriff’s Office that he previously had been asked to leave or that the property owner had authorized the Sheriff’s Office to order patrons to leave. Miller checked the records as Watkins requested and indicated that the results came back negative.
Miller then threatened to arrest Watkins for trespass if he did not leave. Miller stated that the anonymous call was sufficient and that he did not need the authority Watkins claimed he needed. Watkins left the property to avoid being arrested.[ii]
Watkins subsequently sued the officer and alleged the officer violated his rights under the Fourteenth and Fourth Amendments. The district court dismissed both counts as frivolous, and Watkins’ appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
There are two types of Fourteenth Amendment due process claims. The first type is a procedural due process claim. The Eleventh Circuit stated that, for a procedural due process claim under the Fourteenth Amendment, a plaintiff must prove that there has been
(1) a deprivation of a constitutionally protected liberty or property interest, (2) state action, and (3) constitutionally inadequate process.[iii]
The second type of due process claim is a liberty interest claim. The court stated
Regarding liberty interests, “[p]laintiffs have a constitutionally protected liberty interest to be in parks or on other city lands of their choosing that are open to the public generally.” [iv]
Regarding the Fourth Amendment claim, the court stated
The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right of persons to be free from unreasonable seizures. U.S. Const. amend. IV. A Fourth Amendment seizure occurs when an officer, through physical force or show of authority, terminates or restrains a person’s freedom of movement. Chandler v. Sec’y of Fla. Dep’t of Transp., 695 F.3d 1194, 1199 (11th Cir. 2012). However, given all of the particular circumstances, if a reasonable person would have believed that he was free to leave, there is no seizure under the Fourth Amendment. See id.[v]
The court also examined Florida’s criminal trespass statutes. The first statute that covers “the property of another,” other than a structure or conveyance, does not require that the person issuing the trespass warning be the “owner or authorized person.”[vi] In contrast, if the trespass warning is being given to a person who is in a structure or conveyance, the second statute does require that the notice come from the “owner or authorized person.”[vii]
The court then examined whether the officer violated either the due process or liberty interest clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment when he approached Watkins, told him he could not be in the parking lot, issued him a criminal trespass warning and threatened to arrest him if he did not leave the premises. The court noted that Watkins did not allege any specific inadequate process that occurred. Additionally, the liberty interest provision did not apply because that is only applicable to parks and public property; the area at issue was a private shopping center parking lot. Lastly, Watkins’ argument that officer was not the “owner or authorized person” to issue a criminal trespass warning was also without merit because this was not a “structure or conveyance,” the only two places with that requirement.
As such, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court dismissing the Fourteenth Amendment claim.
The court then examined the allegation that the officer violated Watkins’ Fourth Amendment rights. Regarding this issue, the court stated
Despite Watkins’s assertion that his interaction with Miller was not voluntary and that he was forced to leave against his will, Watkins’s interaction with Miller was a consensual encounter. See Rodriguez v. State, 29 So. 3d 310, 311 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2009) (concluding that “a stop merely to issue a trespass warning is not a Terry stop, but rather a consensual encounter”). At no point did Miller ever physically restrain Watkins or indicate that he was not free to leave. Indeed, after Watkins received the trespass warning from Miller, it was Watkins who remained in the parking lot to argue about Miller’s authority to enforce Florida’s trespass laws. At all times Watkins was free to leave and Miller strongly encouraged Watkins to do so.[viii]
As such, a reasonable person would have felt that he was free to leave; therefore, no seizure under the Fourth Amendment occurred.
As such, the court affirmed the decision of the district court dismissing the case.
[i] No. 18-14165 (11th Cir. Decided July 19, 2019 Unpublished)
[ii] Id. at 2-3
[iii] Id. at 5 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. (emphasis added)
[v] Id. at 5-6 (emphasis added)
[vi] Id. at 6 (see Fla. Stat. § 810.09(1)(a)(1))
[vii] Id. (see Fla. Stat. § 810.08(1))
[viii] Id. at 8-9