On October 14, 2020, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. James[i], in which the court examined whether officers had reasonable suspicion to detain a person that dropped his bike and fled on foot as police approached. The relevant facts of James, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
In May 2018, James and another man were sitting on bicycles with no lights in the middle of a dark street in a “high crime area” of Savannah, Georgia. Police officers in an unmarked van patrolling the high crime area saw that James and the other man were in the middle of the street, without lights, blocking traffic, and that a passing car had to swerve around them. Officers [*2] with vests marked “police” exited the van and, as they approached the two men, James immediately ran. The officers chased James and, as they were running, saw James reach for a gun and told him to drop it. Instead, James threw the firearm and a small bag over a fence along the road they were running down. The officers caught up to James and took him into custody. The officers then went to where they saw James throw the firearm and the bag. They found the firearm lying on the grass with a bag of marijuana close by.[ii]
James was subsequently indicted under federal law for being a felon in possession of a firearm. James was convicted by a jury, and he appealed his conviction to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
James had several issues on appeal, however, we will only focus on the Fourth Amendment issues. It is noted that while James technically waived his right to appeal these issues, the court of appeals discussed those issues nonetheless.
James’ first Fourth Amendment issue was that the officers lacked reasonable suspicion when they chased and detained him.
The court noted that when the police saw James, he and another male were sitting on bicycles, in the middle of a dark street, with no lights, in a high-crime area. They were also blocking the road such that another vehicle had to swerve to go around them. The court stated that at this point, the police did not need reasonable suspicion to merely ask the males a few questions, as part of a consensual encounter, as long as they do not act in a manner such as to compel compliance by verbal commands or a physical seizure. Specifically, the court stated
At this point, the officers were not required to have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity because “[t]here is nothing in the Constitution which prevents a policeman from addressing questions to anyone on the streets.” See United States v. Lewis, 674 F.3d 1298, 1303 (11th Cir. 2012)[iii]
However, before the officers could engage in a consensual encounter, James dropped his bicycle and fled on foot. The officers gave chase and observed James throw a gun and a bag over a fence before they caught and detained him. Discussing the applicable law, the court stated
[A]n officer may, consistent with the Fourth Amendment, conduct a brief, investigatory stop when the officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.” Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 123, 120 S. Ct. 673, 145 L. Ed. 2d 570 (2000) (citing Terry, 392 U.S. at 30)…[iv]
James’s “headlong flight” as the officers approached gave the officers a reasonable suspicion that James may be involved in criminal activity. See United States v. Franklin, 323 F.3d 1298, 1300, 1302 (11th Cir. 2003) (holding that police officers had reasonable suspicion to conduct a brief, investigatory stop where the defendant “ran away at full speed as soon as he saw the officers”); see also Wardlow, 528 U.S. at 124-25 (“Flight, by its very nature, is not ‘going about one’s business’; in fact, it is just the opposite. Allowing officers confronted with such flight to stop the fugitive and investigate further is quite consistent with the individual’s right to go about his business or to stay put and remain silent in the face of police questioning.”).[v]
Thus, James’s flight, as the officers approached, provided the officer’s reasonable suspicion to believe James may be involved in criminal activity. It should be noted that other facts that are significant include (1) they were in the middle of the road, (2) they were in a high-crime area, (3) James dropped his bike when he fled, and (4) he threw a gun and bag over a fence as he fled. These facts all added up to strengthen the officer’s reasonable suspicion, although the court did not specifically discuss this since James had actually waived this issue on appeal. The court thus held that the officers had reasonable suspicion to detain James.
The other Fourth Amendment issue we will discuss was whether the officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they searched for, and seized, the firearm and the bag in the private, fenced area, without a search warrant.
The court examined the applicable legal principles for this issue and stated
[A]n individual’s Fourth Amendment rights are not infringed—or even implicated—by a search of a thing or place in which he has no reasonable expectation of privacy.” United States v. Ross, 963 F.3d 1056, 1062 (11th Cir. 2020) (en banc). “This issue—whether an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the object of the challenged search—has come to be known as Fourth Amendment ‘standing.'” Id.[vi]
James admitted in his brief that the fenced in area did not belong to him, and the State introduced evidence that the area did not belong to James. As such, the court held that James lacked standing to challenge the search of the fenced area where the police located the firearm since he did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the area searched.
[i] No. 19-11549 (11th Cir. Decided October 14, 2020 Non-Argument Calendar)
[ii] Id. at 1-2
[iii] Id. at 6-7
[iv] Id. at 6 (emphasis added)
[v] Id. at 7 (emphasis added)
[vi] Id. at 7-8 (emphasis added)