By Burt Rose
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has decided the case of UNITED STATES of America v. Frederick A.JONES, Appellant, 2012 WL 1632566, # 11–4268 (May 10, 2012). This was a direct appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Two police officers, in a marked patrol cruiser, closely followed a car from a public road onto private property, and then blocked the car’s exit. The officers observed no traffic violation. The only suspicious activity they could point to was the car’s presence in a high-crime neighborhood with out-of-state tags. These facts alone led the officers to suspect that the car’s occupants, four African American men, were involved in drug trafficking. Immediately after the driver, Frederick Jones, exited his car, the officers approached him and asked that he lift his shirt, which he did. The officers then asked him to consent to a pat down search, which he did. After neither the shirt lift nor the search revealed anything, the officers discovered that Jones had no license and thus had committed a traffic violation, and so detained him. Subsequently, they searched his person and found he possessed a firearm and a small quantity of marijuana.
The district court denied Jones’s motion to suppress the evidence, reasoning that the initial encounter—prior to the discovery of the traffic violation—was consensual and therefore did not infringe on Jones’s Fourth Amendment rights. However, a reasonable person in Jones’s position would not have felt free to terminate the initial encounter with the officers. The Court held that when an officer blocks a defendant’s car from leaving the scene, particularly when the officer has followed the car, the officer thereby demonstrates a greater show of authority than does an officer who just happens to be on the scene and engages a citizen in conversation.
The court concluded that the officers detained Jones before they had any justification for doing so. For two police officers in uniform in a marked police patrol car conspicuously followed Jones from a public street onto private property and blocked Jones’s car from leaving the scene. The officers then quickly approached Jones by the driver’s side of his car—letting two other vehicle occupants walk away—and nearly immediately asked first that he lift his shirt and then that he consent to a pat down search for weapons. Although the uniformed officers did not draw their holstered weapons or use a threatening tone, these circumstances would suggest to a reasonable person that the officers were not “treating the encounter as ‘routine’ in nature,” but rather that the officers were targeting him because he was engaged in illegal activity. Any one of these facts on its own might very well be insufficient to transform a consensual encounter into a detention or seizure, but all of these facts viewed together crystallized into a Fourth Amendment violation.
Therefore, the lower court was reversed.