The Court of Appeals in Hooks v. U.S., decided on May 30, 2019 reversed weapons and drug charges due to the defendant’s constitutional violations mainly the 4th Amendment.

Hooks and few friends were in a barbeque gathering and an unmarked narcotics police car with was surveying the neighborhood and pulled in front the group.  The officers zeroed on Hooks and one of them ordered Hooks to stand up from his lawn chair where a bag of marijuana exceeding a legal limit was protruding from his pocket and search incident to the arrest recovered a handgun.

The Court expounded that the Fourth Amendment protects individuals against all “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Moreover, this inestimable right of personal security belongs as much to the citizen on the streets of our cities as to the homeowner closeted in his study to dispose of his secret affairs.

The right extends out to individuals attending springtime barbeques in every quadrant of the District, the right of every individual to the possession and control of his own person, free from all restraint or interference of others, unless by clear and unquestionable authority of law.

Hooks moved to suppress all tangible items seized by the police as fruits of an illegal seizure and search at trial.  The trial court sided with the government that either (1) Mr. Hooks had not been seized when the police commanded him to stand up and he complied, or (2) pursuant to Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), the police had reasonable articulable suspicion to briefly stop Mr. Hooks because, by virtue of where he was sitting in his lawn chair, he was violating D.C. Code § 22-1307 (2013 Supp.) by “obstructing [a] walkway.”

The Court articulated that seizure does not occur simply because a law enforcement officer approaches a person on the street and asks him or her questions.   The determinative test is:  taking into account all of the circumstances surrounding the encounter, the police conduct would have communicated to a reasonable person that he was not at liberty to ignore the police presence and go about his business.

That is, the essential inquiry is whether a reasonable person would feel free to decline the officers’ requests or otherwise terminate the encounter.

Here, the totality of the circumstances do not dictate that Hooks was free to leave or to disobey the officer’s order: a team of four armed, uniformed officers drove past him and then reversed to get back to his location; all four officers emerged from the car; all four officers crossed the sidewalk and walked up the concrete walkway, bounded by fencing on either side, directly to where Hooks was sitting in his lawn chair; and the lead officer, without any explanation, commanded him to “get up.”

Thus, Hooks was seized within the meaning and definitions of the “unreasonable search and seizure” under the 4th Amendment.  The only issue remained was whether the officers had reasonable and articulable suspicion that a criminal activity was in progress.   That is, a Terry

stop is permissible upon a lesser showing of a reasonable suspicion supported by specific and articulable facts that the individual is involved in criminal activity.

Here, the government argued that Hooks was in violation of the D.C. Code § 22-1307(a) which makes it “unlawful for a person, alone or in concert with others”:

(1) To crowd, obstruct, or incommode:

  • The use of any street, avenue, alley, road, highway, or sidewalk;
  • The entrance of any public or private building or enclosure;
  • The use of or passage through any public building or public conveyance; or
  • The passage through or within any park or reservation; and

(2) To continue or resume the crowding, obstructing, or incommoding after being instructed by a law enforcement officer to cease the crowding, obstructing, or incommoding.

However, the Court of Appeals determined that this was a pretext to search, seizure and arrest as the officer never provided any warning to Hooks to cease crowding or obstructing as the ordinance requires.

The Court of Appeals concluded that as the evidence seized namely the weapon and drugs were direct results of Hooks constitutional violations against unreasonable search and seizure, thus, the evidence should be excluded as “fruit of the poisonous tree” and convictions reversed.

Refer to our Washington DC Criminal Lawyer page for more information on criminal offenses in the  District.

Categories: Criminal Defense.