4th Circuit: Evidence Suppressed because Police Detained Suspect Without Reasonable Suspicion of Criminal Activity

Posted by Sean P. CecilOct 28, 20150 Comments

The exclusionary rule prevents the government from presenting in a criminal case evidence that is tainted by a violation of the suspect/defendant's constitutional rights. In some cases the rule may result in suppression of all evidence of a crime and dismissal of criminal charges; in others, a successful appeal can lead to reversal of a conviction at the appellate level and a remand to the trial court for a new trial without the tainted evidence, often referred to as the "fruit of the poisonous tree." Suppression or exclusion of evidence follows a court ruling that the evidence is tainted, usually after a defendant's motion. Probably the most common evidence to be suppressed is evidence of contraband (such as drugs or a firearm), possession of which constitutes a crime; probably the most common basis for suppression is a violation of the defendant's Fourth Amendment right to be "secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures." 

A recent case highlighted Fourth Amendment protections in the Fourth Circuit, as the court reversed the trial court's denial of the defendant's motion to suppress, reversed the defendant's conviction for possession of controlled substances, and remanded the case to the District Court for a new trial (or more likely for dismissal of the case for lack of admissible evidence). In United States v. Slocumb, the court ruled that the evidence must be suppressed because the officers detained the defendant without "reasonable suspicion" that he was engaged in criminal activity. "Reasonable suspicion" is a very low threshhold to overcome, and the ruling should be quite refreshing for a reader who values the supposedly inalienable right we all enjoy against arbitrary government intrusion in our lives.  

In Slocumb, the police intended to use a parking lot as the staging area for executing a search warrant as part of a drug investigation unrelated to the defendant. The officers encountered the defendant and his companion when they arrived at the parking lot, a place the officers testified was a high crime area known for drug activity. The defendant told them that he had borrowed a car to pick up his friend, whose car had broken down. As the other police officers moved to execute their search warrant of the unrelated nearby property, one of them approached Mr. Slocumb and his friend, Ms. Lewis, to "inquire about their presence." The officer, Lt. Timothy Chilton, later testified that during their conversation of less than a minute he believed Mr. Slocumb was acting evasively because he did not make eye contact and gave mumbled responses to Chilton's questions. At that point Lt. Chilton called another officer over for assistance, telling him within earshot of Defendant that the two were not allowed to leave. At that point both Mr. Slocumb and his companion were "seized" for the purpose of 4th Amendment analysis. 

To justify a pre-arrest detention or "seizure" in a criminal case (often known as an "investigatory detention" or in some circumstances a "Terry" stop), police must point to specific articulable suspicions of criminal behavior by the suspect. Mr. Slocumb was eventually arrested and searched, and a search warrant was executed at his residence, all leading to criminal drug charges. The Court of Appeals, however, focused on police rationale for and the constitutionality of the pre-arrest detention. Analyzing the trial court's denial of Slocumb's motion to suppress the evidence under the exclusionary rule, the 4th Circuit panel construed the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, and still found that Lt. Chilton's knowledge at the time he detained Slocumb to fall short of what is required to uphold the subsequent arrest and discovery of contraband. 

 To justify an investigatory detention, an officer must be "able to point to specific and articulable facts, which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion." The officer must have a "reasonable and articulable" suspicion that the person seized is engaged in criminal activity. In addition to being reasonable and articulable, the officer's suspicion must be particularized to the individual detained, and be more than just a "hunch." Courts should look to the "totality of circumstances" of a detention scenario to determine whether the officer's behavior was justified. In Slocumb, the court looked at the factors cited by the district court in denying the suppression motion:

1) Chilton's awareness of the high-crime nature of the area;

2) the lateness of the hour;

3) Slocumb's presence in the parking lot of a commercial business that had been closed for several hours;

4) Slocumb's conduct, including appearing to hurry Lewis, giving low, mumbled responses to Chilton's questioning, and avoiding eye contact with Chilton; and

5) that Slocumb's conduct seemed “inconsistent” with his explanation for his presence

 Even viewed in the light most favorable to the officers, the court found that there was no reasonable suspicion that Mr. Slocumb was engaged in criminal activity at the time that Lt. Chilton seized him. (Seizure is defined as circumstances that make a reasonable person believe they are not free to leave.) Although the generalized factors such as the lateness of the hour and the high-crime area are permissible considerations, they do not contribute to the particularized (particular to that individual) suspicion required to detain a specific individual. The court of appeals rejected the trial court's reasoning that Mr. Slocumb should have welcomed police contact and would not have been evasive or mumbling or in a hurry if he was not engaged in criminal activity. The Court concluded that viewed in their totality, the factors cited by the trial court did not amount to a reasonable suspicion to justify Slocumb's seizure. 

This is an important case, because it sometimes seems like courts bend over backwards to rationalize police behavior that successfully exposes evidence of crime. Suppressing evidence is difficult for judges for many reasons, not the least of which is that the defendant is most likely guilty as sin and suppression of the evidence of guilt may allow a "criminal" to beat the charges. However, suppression of evidence of illegal activity is an important check on law enforcement behavior; there is usually no opportunity to examine that behavior in the context of innocent victims of unlawful police privacy intrusions because there is no court case and usually not an incident report if the police do not find anything illegal.

I have experience convincing judges to suppress drug evidence, and am motivated by a strong belief that the "war on drugs" and prohibition in general is an abject failure that leads to harmful criminal behavior and law enforcement abuses at the expense of a more just and civil society. I am available for a free consultation on any drug case, and can be reached by filling out the online form on this website or by scheduling an appointment by calling our legal assistant at 919-828-1456.