On November 25, 2020, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Lea[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to consensual encounters and Miranda.   In Lea, Metropolitan Transit Police Officer’s Woods and Wooley saw a male, later identified as Lea, sitting in a bus stop shelter.  Nobody else was in the immediate vicinity.  They smelled the odor of marijuana and observed that Lea was smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.  The officers, who wore plain-clothes, displayed their badges and asked Lea what he was smoking.  Lea replied, “some weed.”[ii]  The officers then searched Lea and located a firearm.

Lea was a convicted felon and was subsequently charged under federal law.  He filed a motion to suppress, and the district court denied the motion.  Lea appealed to the D.C. Court of Appeals.

On appeal, Lea argued (1) that the officers unlawfully detained him without reasonable suspicion in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and (2) that the statement he made during his unlawful detention was made without having received his warnings under Miranda.  As such, he argued that the evidence and the statement should be suppressed.

Issue One:  Did the officers violate the Fourth Amendment during the initial encounter with Lea?

The court of appeals first addressed the Fourth Amendment issue.  The court examined the legal principles that are relevant to this issue.  The court stated

Not every citizen-police encounter triggers Fourth Amendment scrutiny. Rather, it is implicated only when an individual has been seized. Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 434, 111 S. Ct. 2382, 115 L. Ed. 2d 389 (1991). A “seizure occurs ‘when physical force is used to restrain movement or when a person submits to an officer’s ‘show of authority.'” Delaney, 955 F.3d at 1081 (quoting United States v. Brodie, 742 F.3d 1058, 1061, 408 U.S. App. D.C. 326 (D.C. Cir. 2014)). “Whether police action amounts to a ‘show of authority’ requires the court to ask whether a ‘reasonable person’ ‘in view of all the circumstances surrounding the incident, . . . would have believed that he was not free to leave.'” Castle, 825 F.3d at 632 (quoting United States v. Wood, 981 F.2d 536, 539, 299 U.S. App. D.C. 47 (D.C. Cir. 1992)). That “reasonable person” is not the defendant, but the average person innocent of any crime. United States v. Goddard, 491 F.3d 457, 460, 377 U.S. App. D.C. 66 (D.C. Cir. 2007).[iii]

Simply put, to determine if the encounter with Lea was a consensual encounter, the court must determine if the police conduct amounted seizure of Lea, either physical or by a show of authority, such that a reasonable, innocent person in the same situation would have believed they were not free to leave or disregard the police.  This is accomplished by looking at the “totality of the circumstances.”

The court then discussed various factors to consider under the totality of the circumstances.  The court stated

In performing this totality-of-the-circumstances analysis, courts consider a non-exclusive list of factors, including “whether the suspect was physically intimidated or touched, whether the officer displayed a weapon, wore a uniform, or restricted the defendant’s movements, the time and place of the encounter, and whether the officer’s use of language or tone of voice indicated that compliance with the officer’s request might be compelled.” Delaney, 955 F.3d at 1081 (quoting Castle, 825 F.3d at 632-33). If this assessment indicates that “a reasonable person would feel free to disregard the police and go about his business, the encounter is consensual, and no reasonable suspicion is required.” Bostick, 501 U.S. at 434 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).[iv]

The court also noted that the Supreme Court has held that

[A] seizure does not occur simply because a police officer approaches an individual and asks a few questions.” Bostick, 501 U.S. at 434; see Drayton, 536 U.S. at 200; accord United States v. Gross, 784 F.3d 784, 788, 415 U.S. App. D.C. 1 (D.C. Cir. 2015).[v]

The court then applied the facts of Lea’s case to the legal principles and factors above.  The court noted the following:  (1) the officers did not touch Lea; (2) the officers did not brandish their weapons; (3) Lea’s movement was not restricted; (4) the officers were in plain clothes; and (5) the officers spoke calmly with Lea and did not act overbearing.  Based on these facts, the court of appeals held that the officer’s encounter with Lea was a consensual encounter.

As such, Lea was not subjected to a seizure under the Fourth Amendment when the officers approached him and asked him what he was smoking, to which he replied, “Some weed.”  As this point, the court stated the officers had probable cause that Lea was committing a crime and the subsequent search of Lea, which located a firearm, was considered a lawful search incident to arrest.

However, for the sake of argument, the court of appeals also considered the result in this case if the officer’s encounter with Lea was characterized as an investigative detention (Terry stop) under the Fourth Amendment.  The court stated

Under Terry, “the police can stop and briefly detain a person for investigative purposes if the officer has a reasonable suspicion supported by articulable facts that criminal activity ‘may be afoot.'” United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7, 109 S. Ct. 1581, 104 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1989) (quoting Terry, 392 U.S. at 30). Although the requisite level of suspicion to justify a Terry stop is “less demanding than that for probable cause,” id., the officer “must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion,” Terry, 392 U.S. at 21; see United States v. Edmonds, 240 F.3d 55, 59, 345 U.S. App. D.C. 131 (D.C. Cir. 2001).[vi]

The court then stated that, as the officers observed Lea sitting alone, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, and they smelled the odor of marijuana emanating from Lea’s vicinity, these facts supplied the officers with sufficient reasonable suspicion to justify a lawful Terry stop or investigative detention.  As such, even if Lea was initially detained, the detention would have been lawful under the Fourth Amendment.

Issue Two:  Did the officers violate the Fifth Amendment by asking Lea what he was smoking prior to providing him of his rights under Miranda?

The court then discussed the legal principles relevant to this issue.  The court stated

The police “are not required to administer Miranda warnings to everyone whom they question,” Oregon v. Mathiason, 429 U.S. 492, 495, 97 S. Ct. 711, 50 L. Ed. 2d 714 (1977), but rather “only when a suspect interrogated by the police is ‘in custody,'” Thompson v. Keohane, 516 U.S. 99, 102, 116 S. Ct. 457, 133 L. Ed. 2d 383 (1995).

The Miranda custody analysis is a two-step inquiry. See Howes v. Fields, 565 U.S. 499, 508-09, 132 S. Ct. 1181, 182 L. Ed. 2d 17 (2012); Cooper, 949 F.3d at 748.

  1. As an “initial step,” the court must “ascertain whether, in light of ‘the objective circumstances of the interrogation,’ a ‘reasonable person [would] have felt he or she was not at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave.'” Fields, 565 U.S. at 509 (quoting Stansbury v. California, 511 U.S. 318, 322-23, 114 S. Ct. 1526, 128 L. Ed. 2d 293 (1994), then Thompson, 516 U.S. at 112). If the individual would have felt free to leave, the inquiry ends; a restraint on freedom of movement is a prerequisite for Miranda See Maryland v. Shatzer, 559 U.S. 98, 112, 130 S. Ct. 1213, 175 L. Ed. 2d 1045 (2010).
  2. If, however, the individual’s freedom of movement was restrained, the court “must then ask ‘the additional question whether the relevant environment presents the same inherently coercive pressures as the type of station house questioning at issue in Miranda.‘” Cooper, 949 F.3d at 748 (quoting Fields, 565 U.S. at 509). If so, then the individual is “in custody” and therefore “entitled to the full panoply of protections prescribed by Miranda.” Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 440, 104 S. Ct. 3138, 82 L. Ed. 2d 317 (1984).[vii]

The court then noted that, since they characterized the initial encounter with Lea as a consensual encounter, Miranda was not required to question Lea because, in a consensual encounter a person is free to leave and restraint of freedom is a prerequisite for Miranda warnings to be required.

The court also noted that if the encounter with Lea, for the sake of argument, was characterized as an investigative detention (Terry stop), Miranda still would not have been required.  Specifically, the court stated

[E]ven if the initial encounter is viewed as a Terry stop, for the Supreme Court has explained that the “temporary and relatively nonthreatening detention involved in a traffic stop or Terry stop does not constitute Miranda custody.”[viii]

Therefore, the court of appeals concluded that Lea’s Fourth and Fifth Amendment arguments were without merit and the district court properly denied the motions to suppress.



[i] No. 20-3017 (D.C. Cir. Decided November 25, 2020 Unpublished)

[ii] Id. at 4

[iii] Id. at 3 (emphasis added)

[iv] Id. at 3-4 (emphasis added)

[v] Id. at 5-6 (emphasis added)

[vi] Id. at 6 (emphasis added)

[vii] Id. at 7-8 (emphasis added)

[viii] Id. at 8 (emphasis added)

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