On May 28, 2020, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Ruffin[i], which serves as an excellent review of the three levels of officer citizen encounters and how officers progress through each level during an incident. The relevant facts of Ruffin, taken directly from the case, are as follows:

Though Ruffin was eventually found guilty of a drug offense, the trail of events leading to his arrest began with a different crime. At approximately one o’clock on the morning of November 24, 2016, Tiffany Farmer, a Wilson, North Carolina resident, discovered that her car had been broken into and that numerous items, including her cell phone, were missing. After finding several of the items discarded in the grass near where her car was parked, Farmer called the police. Officer Brandon Ochoa of the Wilson Police Department (“WPD”) responded to the call. He was soon joined by Officer Jesse Emory, who also brought along his police dog named Jaxx. Jaxx is trained in both narcotics detection and human tracking.

After Ochoa took a brief statement from Farmer, he and Emory began searching for the perpetrator. [*3]  Based on the trail of abandoned items leading away from Farmer’s vehicle, the officers believed that the suspect had fled on foot. Emory hooked Jaxx up to his thirty-foot harness, and the dog immediately began tracking a scent, pulling hard on his leash and leading Emory and Ochoa behind Farmer’s apartment, down several streets, and eventually to a path running through a nearby wooded area. Simultaneously, additional WPD officers arrived on the scene and began setting up a perimeter.

Still following Jaxx, Ochoa and Emory emerged from the woods into the common backyard area of an adjacent residential neighborhood. To this point, the officers had not encountered anyone during their search. Almost immediately upon clearing the wood line, however, they spotted appellant Ruffin near several apartment buildings. According to Ochoa, Ruffin was “bent over” near a wheelchair ramp that was attached to one of the apartments. J.A. 91. As Ruffin stood up and began to move away from the ramp, both officers noticed several objects underneath the ramp “[d]irectly in front” of where Ruffin had been bent down. J.A. 92. They suspected that Ruffin might have been involved in the vehicle breaking and entering [*4]  and that the items under the ramp could include property stolen from Farmer’s car.

The officers decided to investigate further. While Emory restrained Jaxx, Ochoa approached and spoke to Ruffin. Ochoa later testified that Ruffin appeared distracted and preoccupied from the outset of their conversation, refusing to give his name when asked and continually moving away from both the officers and the items underneath the ramp. Ruffin admitted that he did not live in the area but claimed he was waiting for his child to use the restroom in the nearby woods. Given the lateness of the hour and the fact that neither officer had seen a child while passing through the woods, Ochoa found this explanation suspicious and believed it to be false. As Ochoa’s questioning continued, Ruffin became increasingly agitated, repeatedly “stuttering,” glancing towards the woods, and behaving in a generally nervous and evasive manner. J.A. 95. Eventually, Ochoa asked Ruffin if he could pat him down for weapons, to which Ruffin consented. Ochoa did not discover any weapons or contraband during the pat-down.

At this point, both officers “believed that [Ruffin] was looking for an escape route to flee,” so they decided [*5]  to temporarily detain him as a suspect in the break-in of Farmer’s vehicle. J.A. 95; see also J.A. 156 (Emory testifying that he told “Ochoa to go ahead and grab [Ruffin] before he takes off [be]cause it looks like he’s fixin’ to run.”). Ochoa informed Ruffin that “he wasn’t free to leave, he was being detained” and placed his hand on Ruffin’s arm. J.A. 96. Ochoa then reached for his handcuffs and attempted to put them on Ruffin, who responded by “straighten[ing] his arm out” and “pulling away.” J.A. 96-97. A struggle ensued. Eventually, Ochoa was able to subdue and handcuff Ruffin.

In the meantime, Emory radioed for assistance, and several WPD officers responded, including Officer David Stancil. With their assistance, Ochoa transported Ruffin to a squad car and conducted a search incident to arrest. As relevant here, that search revealed that Ruffin was carrying $2,082.37 in cash and coins stuffed in various pockets. The cash comprised notes of every denomination: eight $100 bills, one $50 bill, forty-six $20 bills, twelve $10 bills, thirty-four $5 bills, and twenty-two $1 bills.

Meanwhile, Stancil investigated the items that Ochoa and Emory had noticed under the wheelchair ramp. He [*6]  found a white grocery bag sitting next to a black sock. After the objects were photographed, Stancil opened the grocery bag and “immediately saw what appeared to [be] a large quantity of cocaine packaged up.” J.A. 462. Upon further inquiry, the white bag was found to contain a vacuum sealed package of cocaine weighing 397.3 grams and a white sock, which in turn contained three individually wrapped packages of cocaine, two weighing 136.5 grams and one weighing 266.2 grams. Also inside the grocery bag were a digital scale and various other drug paraphernalia. The black sock also contained illegal drugs, specifically two packages of cocaine base weighing a total of 86 grams and a bag of cocaine weighing 20 grams. Police believed the drugs belonged to Ruffin, and he was subsequently transferred to federal custody.[ii]

Ruffin was charged with drug offenses under federal law and subsequently filed a motion to suppress the evidence.  He argued that he was arrested without probable cause, and as such the search incident to arrest was in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  The district court denied his motion, and he was convicted by a jury.  He then appealed the denial of his motion to suppress to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Three Levels of Officer / Citizen Encounters

As a short review, there are three levels of officer/citizen encounters.  The first level is a called a consensual encounter.  A consensual encounter does not require any proof of criminal activity.  As long as an officer does not say anything or do anything that would cause an ordinary person to believe he not free to go on about his business, the encounter does not implicate the Fourth Amendment.  The officer may also ask the person questions during this encounter.  Regarding consensual encounters, the court of appeals stated

[I]n the absence of a seizure, a police-citizen encounter is considered consensual and ‘will not trigger Fourth Amendment scrutiny.'” United States v. Farrior, 535 F.3d 210, 218 (4th Cir. 2008) (quoting Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 434, 111 S. Ct. 2382, 115 L. Ed. 2d 389 (1991)). And the Supreme Court has made clear that a Fourth Amendment “seizure does not occur simply because a police officer approaches an individual and asks a few questions.” Bostick, 501 U.S. at 434; accord United States v. Sullivan, 138 F.3d 126, 131 (4th Cir. 1998).[iii]

The second level of officer/citizen encounter is the investigative detention, also known as a Terry stop.  An investigative detention requires reasonable suspicion of criminal activity in order to comply with the Fourth Amendment.  Reasonable suspicion is more than a hunch, but a less stringent standard than probable cause.  In order to determine whether reasonable suspicion exists, one must consider the totality of the circumstances, as well as the officer’s knowledge, training and experience.  Regarding reasonable suspicion, the court of appeals stated

Even in the absence of probable cause, “[t]he Fourth Amendment permits brief investigative stops . . . when a law enforcement officer has ‘a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.'” Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. 393, 396-97, 134 S. Ct. 1683, 188 L. Ed. 2d 680 (2014) (quoting United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417-18, 101 S. Ct. 690, 66 L. Ed. 2d 621 (1981)). Pursuant to Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S. Ct. 1868, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889 (1968), and its progeny, such stops require only that the investigating officer have “reasonable suspicion” that “criminal activity may be afoot.” United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273, 122 S. Ct. 744, 151 L. Ed. 2d 740 (2002) (internal quotation marks omitted). Though a mere “hunch” is insufficient to give rise to reasonable suspicion, the proof required to meet this standard is “obviously less” than necessary to establish probable cause. Navarette, 572 U.S. at 397 (internal quotation marks omitted). Like probable cause, the reasonable suspicion analysis is an objective inquiry that looks to the “totality of the circumstances.” Ibid. And because the existence of reasonable suspicion is a “commonsensical proposition, courts are not remiss in crediting the practical experience of [*12]  officers who observe on a daily basis what transpires on the street.” United States v. Foreman, 369 F.3d 776, 782 (4th Cir. 2004).[iv]

The third level of officer/citizen encounter is an arrest, which requires probable cause in order to comply with the Fourth Amendment.  Regarding arrests, the court of appeals stated

[U]nder the Fourth Amendment, a warrantless arrest is an unreasonable seizure unless there is probable cause to believe that a criminal offense has been or is being committed.” United States v. Johnson, 599 F.3d 339, 346 (4th Cir. 2010). In determining if a law enforcement officer had probable cause to make an arrest, we ask whether “at the time the arrest occur[ed], the facts and circumstances within the officer’s knowledge would warrant the belief of a prudent person that the arrestee had committed or was committing an offense.” United States v. Manbeck, 744 F.2d 360, 376 (4th Cir. 1984). While this inquiry is an objective one, Johnson, 599 F.3d at 346, it [*11]  “does not involve the application of a precise legal formula or test,” United States v. Humphries, 372 F.3d 653, 657 (4th Cir. 2004). Rather, we must undertake a “commonsense and streetwise assessment” of the totality of the circumstances, giving due deference to the “inferences drawn by law enforcement officers on the scene.” Humphries, 372 F.3d at 657.[v]

The Four Stages of Ruffin’s Encounter with the Police

The court of appeals divided the officer’s encounter with Ruffin in to four stages to discuss the legality of the officer’s conduct at each stage.  The four stages are as follows:  (1) the portion of the encounter prior to the officer placing his hand on Ruffin’s arm and told him that he was being detained; (2) the portion of the encounter where Officer Ochoa initially attempted to detain Ruffin; (3) the portion where Officer Ochoa placed Ruffin under arrest; and (4) the portion of the encounter where the officer’s searched Ruffin incident to arrest.

Stage One

This is the portion of the encounter prior to Officer Ochoa putting his hand on Ruffin and telling him he was being detained.  The court examined this stage to determine if the encounter was consensual, which would require no reasonable suspicion.  At this stage, the officers had observed him bent over at a wheel chair ramp and also observed items under the ramp.  Officer asked him a few questions, and asked for and received consent to pat him down for weapons, which Officer Ochoa did after he received Ruffin’s consent.  The court stated that at this point, this was merely a consensual encounter that did not require reasonable suspicion.  Therefore, there was no Fourth Amendment violation at this stage.

Stage Two

This is the portion of the encounter where Officer Ochoa touched Ruffin, told him that he was being detained, and attempted to handcuff him.  The court noted that this was clearly the point where the encounter became a Fourth Amendment seizure, particularly an investigative detention.   For the investigative detention to comply with the Fourth Amendment, it must be supported by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.  The court held that there were ample facts to support reasonable suspicion to detain Ruffin.  Specifically, the court stated

[T]he following facts, when taken together and considered in light of the officers’ experience and training, could have reasonably led Ochoa and Emory to suspect that Ruffin was involved in the breaking and entering of Farmer’s vehicle: (1) the lateness of the hour; (2) that Jaxx had led the officers from the scene of the vehicle break-in to Ruffin’s location; (3) that Ruffin was the only person the officers encountered during their search; (4) that Ruffin was bending over near various objects under [*15]  the wheelchair ramp, which the officers’ experience suggested may have been property stolen from a series of car break-ins; (5) that, when questioned by Ochoa, Ruffin grew extremely nervous and appeared to be looking for an opportunity to flee; (6) that Ruffin behaved in an evasive manner throughout the encounter, consistently moving away from both Ochoa and the items under the ramp; and (7) that Ruffin’s explanation for his presence behind the apartment at 1:40 in the morning—that his child (who somehow never appeared) was using the restroom in the nearby woods—was wholly implausible.[vi]

The court of appeals held that the above facts, taken together as the totality of the circumstances, provided ample reasonable suspicion to justify the investigative detention, therefore, it complied with the Fourth Amendment.

Additionally, Ruffin argued that the officer’s attempt to handcuff him as part of the investigative detention transformed the detention into a de-facto arrest without probable cause.  Regarding the legality of handcuffing suspects during investigative detentions, the court of appeals stated

It is well established in this circuit that “handcuffing a suspect . . . does not necessarily elevate a lawful [Terry] stop into a custodial arrest.” United States v. Elston, 479 F.3d 314, 320 (4th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted). This is because “[b]rief, even if complete, deprivations of a suspect’s liberty do not convert a stop and frisk into an arrest so long as the methods of restraint used are reasonable to the circumstances.” United States v. Crittendon, 883 F.2d 326, 329 (4th Cir. 1989). In particular, the reasonableness of handcuffing a suspect during a Terry stop depends on whether doing so is “necessary to maintain the status quo and protect [officer] safety.” Ibid.[vii]

The court found that the handcuffing was reasonable because there were two officers on the scene; one officer was detaining Jaxx, which only left Officer Ochoa to both detain Ruffin and check under the wheelchair ramp for possible stolen items.  The court noted that this would have ben “an incredibly dangerous maneuver” that no “officer on earth would do.”[viii]  The court then held that handcuffing Ruffin was a “reasonable and minimally intrusive means of preserving the status quo for the duration of the stop.”[ix]  Therefore, the decision to handcuff Ruffin was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

Stage Three

This portion of the encounter was where Officer Ochoa placed Ruffin under arrest.  The relevant facts of this portion of the encounter are as follows: (1) Officer Ochoa had ample reasonable suspicion to detain Ruffin regarding the thefts from autos; (2) Officer Ochoa told Ruffin that he was being detained; and (3) Ruffin straightened his arm and struggled against Officer Ochoa for about a minute trying to prevent being handcuffed.  The court noted that

Ruffin’s resistance gave Ochoa probable cause to arrest him for violation of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-223, which makes it unlawful to “resist, delay, or obstruct a public officer in discharging or attempting to discharge a duty of his office.” See Swift, 414 S.E.2d at 68 (“Flight from a lawful investigatory stop may provide probable cause to arrest an individual for violation of G.S. 14-223.”[x]

Thus, the court held that Ruffin’s resistance to the lawful investigative detention provided the officers probable cause to arrest him obstructing or resisting a public officer under North Carolina law, and as such, the arrest complied with the Fourth Amendment.

Stage Four

The final stage of the encounter analyzed by the court of appeals was the search of Ruffin’s person incident to arrest.  The court stated

Generally, warrantless searches of the type at issue here, that is, “searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are [*10]  per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment—subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.” Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357, 88 S. Ct. 507, 19 L. Ed. 2d 576 (1967) (footnote omitted). One such exception to the warrant requirement is for searches conducted incident to arrest. See United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 230-35, 94 S. Ct. 467, 38 L. Ed. 2d 427 (1973). As the Supreme Court has explained, this “exception derives from interests in officer safety and evidence preservation that are typically implicated in arrest situations,” and it permits law enforcement to search “the arrestee’s person and the area within his immediate control.” Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, 338-39, 129 S. Ct. 1710, 173 L. Ed. 2d 485 (2009)Of course, for a search incident to arrest to be constitutionally valid, the predicate arrest must also have been valid. See Gant, 556 U.S. at 338. [xi]

Here, the court had already determined that the officer had probable cause to arrest Ruffin for obstructing or resisting a public officer under North Carolina law.  As such, the arrest was lawful which means the officers were entitled to search his person incident to arrest.

The court then summed up the incident by stating

The foregoing course of events makes clear that the police acted in accordance with the Fourth Amendment throughout their encounter with Ruffin. They did not detain him until they had a basis for reasonable suspicion. They did not arrest him until their suspicion had risen to the level of probable cause. And they did not search him until they had lawfully placed him under arrest. In short, no Fourth Amendment violation occurred in this case…[xii]

Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.



[i] No. 19-4102 (4th Cir. Decided May 28, 2020)

[ii] Id. at 2-6

[iii] Id. at 13 (emphasis added)

[iv] Id. at 11-12 (emphasis added)

[v] Id. at 10-11 (emphasis added)

[vi] Id. at 14-15

[vii] Id. at 18

[viii] Id. at 19

[ix] Id.

[x] Id. at 21

[xi] Id. at 9-10 (emphasis added)

[xii] Id. at 22

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