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The Fourth Circuit Holds That If The Police Prevent Your Car From Legally Moving, They Have Seized You

Last year came to be known as the year that the Fourth Amendment rose again in Richmond, Virginia.

The Fourth Circuit held that police conduct violated the Fourth Amendment here, here, here, here, and here.

Last week, the Fourth Circuit did it again.

230777_view_of_richmond.jpgFrederick Jones was driving three of his friends through Richmond Virginia. They were in a car with New York license plates. They were all African-American.

Two police officers spotted them and started to follow their car. Because the area was known as a place where people sell drugs, and because the men were in a car with out of state plates, and because, as one officer put it “the people in the vehicle didn’t belong there” they were followed.

In the light of the late afternoon, the police followed the men in a marked police car.

The men pulled onto a one-way private road that ran along an apartment building. They parked their car.

The police car pulled past them on the road and stopped, blocking anyone from driving past. If the men wanted to leave in their car, they would have had to back up the one-way street the wrong way.

The men in the car got out. Mr. Jones stayed with the car by the driver’s side door. Everyone else went into the apartment building.

The police got out of their car and walked up to Mr. Jones. They instructed him that they needed to talk to him. They asked him to lift his shirt and to let them pat him down. He did.

They asked for his driver’s license. He didn’t have one.

They told him he was then under arrest for driving without a license. When they searched him again as a part of the arrest, they found a gun in his pants, and some marijuana. He was charged with possessing a firearm as a drug user. (though, what about this Fourth Circuit case?)

He filed a motion to suppress the evidence, which was denied. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed, in United States v. Jones, finding that he was seized by the officers when they approached him for Fourth Amendment purposes, so that the evidence was obtained illegally.

The court of appeals was moved by the way the officer parked.

We agree that when an officer blocks a defendant’s car from leaving the scene, particularly when, as here, the officer has followed the car, the officer 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 of appeals also thought the way the officers approached Mr. Jones also made it plain to him that he couldn’t leave. Some times, officers approach and ask permission to talk to a person. That isn’t what happened here.

Rather, in speaking to Jones, the officers clearly continued their show of authority. According to [the officer] himself, ‘right when’ he ‘made contact’ with Jones, he asked Jones to “lift [his] shirt” to see whether Jones possessed a weapon. Not satisfied with the shirt lift, [the officer] then asked Jones to consent to a pat down search, further implying that the officer suspected that Jones–a person the police had followed onto private property–might be armed. Thus, their immediate verbal exchange with Jones did nothing to lessen a reasonable person’s suspicion that he was the target of a criminal investigation, and, in light of the totality of the circumstances, only enhanced it.

For those reasons, the Fourth Circuit concluded that

Thus, the totality of the facts in this case requires us to conclude 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.” See Gray, 883 F.2d at 322-23. 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 crystallize into a Fourth Amendment violation.

The Confederacy may never rise again, but it’s nice to see the Fourth Amendment is coming back in Richmond.