Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Reason #976 Why You Should Walk, Not Run, Away from Your Friendly Neighborhood Cop

During routine patrol in Toledo, Ohio, several police officers encountered a group of citizens gathered in a shopping center parking lot.  The group had no apparent purpose other than to be in each other’s company, and the officers suspected them of loitering in what police described as a “high crime area.”  While monitoring the situation throughout the day, the officers also noticed a black man riding a bike back and forth across the parking lot. 

In order to round up the perceived loiterers and generally prevent them from leaving, the police decided to “bum rush” the shopping center and flood it with officers.  The police used this technique every couple of weeks to rid the area of crime. 

When Toledo Police Department Officers Toth and Niles drove toward the shopping center, they saw a bike rider who appeared to be the same person they noticed earlier.  It turns out they were wrong; the man on the bike was actually Dominic Jeter, who had simply entered the grocery store, bought a snack and a bottled water, came outside for 3-4 minutes to eat the snack and was in the process of leaving when he ran into the cops. 

The officers drove up to Jeter, and Officer Niles rolled down the window and asked to speak to him.  Jeter was already pedaling away from the area at that point, and he did not respond, instead “wandering away on his bike.”  Undeterred, Officers Toth and Niles drove their police car onto the grass to keep Jeter from leaving.  With his pathway blocked, Jeter stopped.  Officer Niles got out of the car to talk with him, but after looking at the officers, Jeter dropped his bike and started running away.  The officers chased him down the alley, and saw him clutching the right front pocket of his shorts.  They captured and searched him, finding a .22 caliber handgun in his right front pocket.  Jeter lost a district court motion to suppress.

        Confronted with these facts, the Sixth Circuit in United States v. Jeter, No. 12-3909 (6th Cir. Jul. 10, 2013) agreed that officers lacked both probable cause and reasonable suspicion to suspect Jeter of crime during their initial encounter.  The Court was unpersuaded that either Jeter or the individuals in the parking lot were loitering.  The Court rightly noted that Jeter’s status as “a black man on a bicycle in a high crime area is not enough to support reasonable suspicion, let alone probable cause, where the facts indicate no laws were being broken . . . .” 

      The agreement ended there, however, as the Court ultimately concluded there was no Fourth Amendment seizure since Jeter never actually submitted to the officers’ show of authority.  Rather, because Jeter only “paused briefly,” never engaged in conversation, and ignored the officers’ requests, the Court believed California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621, 626 (1991) compelled a finding that no seizure had occurred.

         Additionally, the Court noted that although Jeter was unquestionably seized after the officers tackled him, their actions by that point were justified since Jeter fled and was grabbing at his pocket in a crime-ridden area.  In so concluding, the Court looked to Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119 (2000), which held that unprovoked flight from police can support a Terry stop, so long as it happens in a “high-crime” neighborhood (read: the ghetto). The Court rejected Jeter’s argument that officers had provoked his flight. This was, in part, because (1) Jeter was the only person who ran, and (2) he later admitted fleeing because he had a gun.

         The Court stopped short of defining what constitutes a provoked flight.  But, the examples it cited suggested that fraud, threat of bodily harm, or similar police wrongdoing might be necessary to invalidate a search.   

        Setting aside the wisdom and implications of the Wardlow / Jeter rationale (see David A. Harris, Factors for Reasonable Suspicion:  When Black and Poor Means Stopped and Frisked, 69 Ind. L.J. 659 (1994)), for now, these cases dictate that citizens in “high crime areas” better think twice before running away from police.  The full Jeter opinion is available here.