On May 26, 2020, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Goebel[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to reasonable suspicion required to detain a suspicious person. The relevant facts of Goebel, taken directly from the case, are as follows:

In June 2017, Roswell Police Officer Alex Barleen was on patrol at approximately 2:45 a.m. when he heard a report of a reckless driver. A short time later, he observed a car behind him make an abrupt turn onto another street, which in Officer Barleen’s experience is consistent with impaired drivers or people evading law enforcement. Finding the other driver’s abrupt turn suspicious, knowing the area to be a “high crime” neighborhood, and having recently heard the report of a reckless driver, Officer Barleen made a U-turn and followed the car, which eventually pulled into the driveway of a residence in the neighborhood.

Officer Barleen pulled over approximately 100 feet from the driveway and monitored the other car. He observed the driver, later identified as Goebel, exit the vehicle, walk past a van parked in the driveway, past the front porch, past a side door, and through a gate into the backyard. As Goebel did so, Officer Barleen drove forward and stopped in the street directly behind Goebel’s parked car. He remained there for approximately 10 seconds to get the license plate number. During that time there was no one sitting in the driver’s seat of Goebel’s car, although [*3]  there was a front-seat passenger. Officer Barleen observed that there were no lights on in the residence and the van in the driveway had an open side door. He then activated his body camera and reversed and parked so that he was no longer blocking the driveway.

As Officer Barleen parked, the front-seat passenger stepped out and approached Officer Barleen. Officer Barleen testified that it is unusual for someone to approach his patrol car before first being approached themselves and that such behavior is sometimes an effort to distract law enforcement officers. Officer Barleen exited his car and spoke to the passenger, who could not tell Officer Barleen the address of the residence they had just parked in front of.

Goebel returned from the backyard and began to open the driver’s side door. Officer Barleen ordered him away from the car and directed both Goebel and the front-seat passenger to stand on the sidewalk. Officer Barleen asked them what they were doing at the residence, and asked Goebel whether he knew the address. Goebel did not know the address, but nevertheless claimed they were there to give a friend, “Joseph,” a ride to work and that he had been told to go to the side door [*4]  when they arrived.

During this conversation, another officer arrived. Officer Barleen left Goebel and the passenger with the other officer and went to talk to the second passenger in Goebel’s car. She told Officer Barleen she did not know why they were at the residence, did not know the residents of the home, and did not even know Goebel or the front-seat passenger, whom she said was giving her a ride home. After this conversation, Officer Barleen learned from dispatch that Goebel was on probation and had prior felony convictions.

He then went to the front door of the home and knocked several times before one of the occupants answered. She said she did not know any of the people in front of her house, and that there was no one named Joseph living there. She also said she thought the van door had been closed when she went to bed. She gave Officer Barleen permission to search the van and the backyard.

Officer Barleen then placed Goebel in handcuffs and told him he was being detained for suspicious activity, possible vehicle burglary, and criminal trespass. Goebel denied any wrongdoing and repeated he was there to pick up a friend. Goebel was not advised of his Miranda rights before this [*5]  conversation, which lasted less than a minute.

Officer Barleen then searched the van and the backyard. He noticed a gate in the back fence that was slightly open, and eventually found a handgun inside a holster lying on the ground in the middle of the alley. After the handgun was properly secured, Officer Barleen went back to Goebel and read him his Miranda rights. Goebel stated that he had been read his rights before and understood them. He denied possessing the handgun, disclaimed any knowledge of it, and admitted to nothing.

Officer Barleen then placed Goebel under arrest and transported him to the police station for booking. After Officer Barleen read Goebel his Miranda rights again, Goebel again denied any knowledge of the handgun and said nothing incriminating. At no point during any of these conversations, all of which were recorded, did Officer Barleen raise his voice or make any physical threat.

Goebel subsequently was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1)..[ii]

Goebel filed a motion to suppress and alleged that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to detain him and, as such, the gun must be suppressed.  He also argued that the officer questioned him in violation of the Fifth Amendment.  The district court denied his motion as to the Fourth Amendment and suppressed statements made during a one-minute conversation prior to Miranda warnings.  Goebel appealed the denial of his motion to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court of appeals first examined the Fourth Amendment issue.  Goebel argued that the officer detained him without reasonable suspicion in violation of the Fourth Amendment and as such, the gun should be suppressed under the exclusionary rule.  Particularly, Goebel argued that he was detained when the officer momentarily blocked the driveway with the police vehicle.  The court noted the legal test for whether a person is detained under the Fourth Amendment and stated

[T]he crucial test is whether, taking into account all of the circumstances surrounding the encounter, the police conduct would have communicated to a reasonable person that he was not at liberty to ignore the police presence and go about his business.” Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 437, 111 S. Ct. 2382, 115 L. Ed. 2d 389 (1991).[iii]

The court examined the facts relevant to this issue.  First, the court noted that by the time the officer blocked the driveway, Goebel had already exited his vehicle and walked into the backyard.  Second, Goebel’s vehicle was only blocked for ten seconds and Goebel was not present that entire time.  By the time he returned, the officer had repositioned his vehicle so it was not blocking Goebel’s vehicle.  As such, the court held that the officer’s actions “could not possibly have communicated to Goebel that he was not free to leave.”[iv]

The court also observed that by the time Goebel returned to his vehicle and the officer, the officer had already developed sufficient reasonable suspicion to detain him.  First, the court stated that it is unusual for a person to park in a driveway and walk into the backyard of a residence at 3:30am without first knocking on the front door.  While there may have been an innocent reason, the court noted it could also have been trespass or burglary.  Second, the area they were in is a high-crime neighborhood.  This alone does not provide reasonable suspicion but it is a valid factor to consider under the totality of the circumstances.  Third, when the officer stopped, the passenger of Goebel’s vehicle exited and approached the officer.  This is often used to divert an officer’s attention.  Fourth, the passenger did not know the address of the driveway where they had parked.  Fifth, there appeared to be no lights on in the residence and the van in the driveway had an open side door.  Lastly, the officer had previously seen Goebel’s vehicle driving evasively.  Thus, in light of the totality of the circumstances, the officer had reasonable suspicion to detain Goebel for further investigation.  During this investigation, when the officer questioned Goebel, he was unable to provide the address or name of the resident at that location.  He said that he was picking up a friend, but the officer confirmed there was nobody at the residence that knew Goebel.

Goebel also argued that the officer unreasonably prolonged the detention.  The court stated

A Terry stop may only last long enough to address the reason for the stop, and related safety concerns. Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348, 354, 135 S. Ct. 1609, 191 L. Ed. 2d 492 (2015). In addressing such an argument, we must “examine whether the police diligently pursued a means of investigation [*13]  that was likely to confirm or dispel their suspicions quickly, during which time it was necessary to detain the defendant.” United States v. Sharpe, 470 U.S. 675, 686, 105 S. Ct. 1568, 84 L. Ed. 2d 605 (1985).[v]

Here, the court noted that the investigation lasted approximately nineteen minutes during which the officer was able to interview Goebel and his passenger, speak to the resident at that address, and search the area where Goebel had walked, which revealed a gun.  Thus, the court held that the officer did not unreasonably prolong the detention.

Therefore, the court upheld the denial of the motion to suppress as it pertained to the Fourth Amendment issue.

The court then examined Goebel’s Fifth Amendment argument that his statements should be suppressed. The court stated

A Miranda warning is required only when a defendant is in custody. United States v. Griffin, 7 F.3d 1512, 1516 (10th Cir. 1993). Whether a suspect is in custody is an objective determination requiring courts to examine “(1) whether the circumstances demonstrated a police-dominated atmosphere; (2) whether the nature and length of the officers’ questioning was accusatory or coercive; and (3) whether the police made [defendant] aware that [he] was free to refrain from answering questions, or to otherwise end the interview.” United States v. Revels, 510 F.3d 1269, 1275 (10th Cir. 2007).[vi]

At issue was a conversation on the sidewalk prior to being handcuffed and two Mirandized statements.  Regarding the conversation on the sidewalk prior to being handcuffed, the court stated the officer did not convert the encounter into a custodial interrogation by his actions.  The officer did not raise his voice, make any threats, or draw his gun.  As such, the first conversation did not require Miranda.  Regarding the statements made after Miranda, Goebel would have to show that his statements were not voluntary.  The court held there was no evidence provided to indicate that Geobel’s statements were involuntary.

As such the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress regarding his statements.



[i] No. 19-2125 (10th Cir. Decided May 26, 2020)

[ii] Id. at 2-5

[iii] Id. at 9 (emphasis added)

[iv] Id.

[v] Id. at 12-13 (emphasis added)

[vi] Id. at 15 (emphasis added)

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