On November 2, 2020, the Court of Appeals of Georgia decided Runnells v. State[i], which is instructive regarding reasonable suspicion.  The relevant facts of Runnells are as follows:

Llewellyn testified at the motion to suppress hearing that she had four years of experience on the narcotics squad of her police department, and had extensive training in drug investigations. On the night of the incident, Llewellyn was conducting a random patrol of an apartment complex in a “very high crime” area known for drug activity and recent robberies. It was dark at the time. She noticed a vehicle parked “oddly” behind several other parked vehicles. There was a Hispanic male standing at the driver’s side door, who looked as if he was engaged in “some sort of contact with the driver” of the oddly parked vehicle. When the Hispanic male saw Llewellyn’s police car, he ran from the scene.

At that point, Llewellyn suspected that the man had engaged in some kind of drug transaction or sale of stolen property with the driver of the vehicle. However, Llewellyn did not see any actual hand-to-hand transaction or exchange between the two. She moved her police car closer to the parked vehicle and noticed a passenger in the vehicle. The driver, later identified as Runnells, got out of the car and popped its hood, looking at the engine as if something was wrong with the car. The driver went back into the driver’s seat, popped the trunk, and got out again and placed a backpack into the trunk. Llewellyn then decided to engage the driver; she “repositioned [her] car so that [she] could approach him.” Choosing to bypass a first-tier stop, she turned on her blue lights, and got out of her police car. As she approached the vehicle, she noticed a strong smell of marijuana coming from the vehicle.

After speaking to Runnells outside of the car, and while speaking to the passenger who was still inside the car, Llewellyn observed small bits of marijuana throughout the floorboard of the car. The passenger told Llewellyn she had just finished smoking marijuana. At that point, Llewellyn decided that she was going to search the vehicle based on her observations of marijuana. During the search, Llewellyn discovered the evidence that led to the charges against Runnells.”[ii]

Runnells filed a motion to suppress and argued, among other things that his stop was not supported by reasonable suspicion.  The trial court denied the motion, and he was convicted of drug and weapons charges.  He subsequently appealed the denial of his motion to suppress to the Court of Appeals of Georgia.

On appeal, the court set out to determine if there was reasonable suspicion that Runnells was involved in criminal activity.  The state conceded that the officer initiated an investigative detention of Runnells when she activated her blue lights, and that reasonable suspicion is required for this to be a lawful detention.

The court first discussed the law related to reasonable suspicion and stated

In a second-tier investigatory detention, “a police officer, even in the absence of probable cause, may stop persons and detain them briefly, when the officer has a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the persons are involved in criminal activity.” State v. Banks, 223 Ga. App. 838, 839-840 (479 SE2d 168) (1996) (physical precedent only), citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U. S. 1 (88 SCt 1868, 20 LE2d 889) (1968). “A reasonable suspicion is more than a subjective, unparticularized suspicion or hunch,” and “[t]he officer’s action must be justified by specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.Rogers v. State, 206 Ga. App. 654, 659 (3) (426 SE2d 209) (1992) (citations and punctuation omitted).[iii]

The court also examined Georgia precedent relevant to the facts of Runnells’ case and stated

[The Georgia] Supreme Court and this Court have held that a police officer witnessing a suspect fitting a pattern of criminal behavior in a high-crime area is not sufficient to provide a reasonable, articulable suspicion to detain the suspect. See Hughes, 269 Ga. at 260-261 (1) (second-tier detention unjustified and denial of motion to suppress reversed where suspect was driving in high-crime area, picked up man from street and continued driving slowly throughout neighborhood back to where passenger was picked up; officer suspected that passenger was buying drugs from suspect based on pattern of behavior in neighborhood); Holmes v. State, 252 Ga. App. 286, 287-289 (556 SE2d 189) (2001) (second-tier detention unjustified and trial court’s denial of motion to suppress reversed where suspect was walking through parking lot known for drug activity, briefly stopped at the window of a parked car, changed his walking direction after noticing the police, and appeared nervous when approached by the police); Adkinson, 322 Ga. App. at 2-3 (second-tier detention unjustified and trial court’s denial of motion to suppress reversed where suspect was observed at a motel located in an area known for heavy drug activity; suspect parked his vehicle, climbed the motel stairs, disappeared from view for a few minutes, then came back down to his vehicle and drove off); Williams v. State, 327 Ga. App. 239, 244 (758 SE2d 141) (2014) (second-tier detention unjustified and trial court’s denial of motion to suppress reversed where suspect was observed entering briefly and departing an apartment that was being surveilled as the location of suspected drug sales; officers did not have a particularized suspicion that Williams was engaged in wrongdoing at the time of the investigatory stop).[iv]

The court also noted that, where an officer observes a hand-to-hand transaction, the court typically will find that reasonable suspicion was present.  The court stated

On the other hand, where a suspect was observed directly making a hand-to-hand exchange with another individual, our Court has found sufficient justification to warrant a second-tier detention. See Lambright v. State, 226 Ga. App. 424, 425-427 (1) (487 SE2d 59) (1997) (noting that officer’s suspicions “became ‘articulable’ the moment he saw the hand-to-hand exchange” between suspect and third party). Further, where suspects were observed making what an officer suspected were hand-to-hand drug transactions, combined with some additional suspicious behavior from the suspect, we have found investigatory detentions to be warranted. See State v. Preston, 348 Ga. App. 662, 665 (824 SE2d 582) (2019) (second-tier detention was justified and trial court’s order suppressing evidence was reversed where suspect was observed making what an experienced officer believed to be multiple hand-to-hand drug transactions with multiple individuals over a five-minute period; suspect also changed his behavior after noticing police by moving his vehicle from where it was parked in front of a gas station’s store to a gas pump to begin pumping gas);  [*578] Thompson v. State, 230 Ga. App. 131, 132-133 (495 SE2d 607) (1998) (trial court’s denial of motion to suppress affirmed where suspect was observed near another individual, engaged in what an experienced officer suspected to be  a drug transaction, and both the suspect and the other individual left “skiddishly” after observing police).[v]

The court of appeals then applied the facts of Runnells’ case to the precedent discussed above.  The relevant facts were as follows:  (1) the officer observed Runnells parked oddly in a parking lot located in a high-crime area; (2) a male was standing outside Runnells’ car at the driver’s window; (3) the officer observed them interacting but did not see a hand-to-hand transaction; and (4) the male outside the vehicle fled on foot when he saw the officer. The court of appeals also noted that, although the male outside Runnells’ car fled, Runnells did not flee or try to evade the officer.  Further, the officer was not looking for anyone meeting Runnells’ description, nor was she investigating a complaint of drugs or some other criminal activity.  As such, the court of appeals held these facts were more akin to the “general pattern of behavior” cases that do not form the basis of reasonable suspicion.

The court of appeals then held

For all of the reasons stated above, and based on a totality of the circumstances, we conclude that Llewellyn did not have sufficient justification for her investigatory detention of Runnells. [vi]

Therefore, the court of appeals reversed the decision of the trial court.



[i] 357 Ga. App. 572  (2020)

[ii] Id. at 575

[iii] Id. (emphasis added)

[iv] Id. at 576-577 (emphasis added)

[v] Id. at 577-578 (emphasis added)

[vi] Id. at 579

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