The Court of Appeals in Albert Jones v. United States, decided on February 23, 2017, reversed a possession of cocaine charge as the evidence was obtained in violation of the defendant’s 4th amendment rights.
Jones was approached by two police officers in a narrow ally common for drug use or sale. The officers had remained in the cruiser while approaching Jones who was on foot with no articulable suspension other than Jones having a Newport container on his right hand and moving it to his back as he was approached by the officers.
After few basic questions name address date of birth and where he was coming from and doing in the ally casually put, the defendant was told to place his Newport container above the cruiser and was asked if the officer could look inside. Small amount of cocaine was found and Jones was charged with possession thereof.
On appeal, Jones argued that the seizure of the drugs was in violation of his 4th Amendment rights as there was no articulable suspicion in detaining and questioning him.
The trial court ruled that he was not detained and was never expressly told he is detained and search of his possessions was consentual.
The Court of Appeals disagreed in holding that the questioning and the surrounding circumstances together presented sufficient custodial atmosphere where a reasonable person would have felt that he/she was not free to walk away or leave.
Approaching and questioning by itself does not amount to seizure or becomes custodial — physical force or show of authority are required to turn a stop and questioning to seizure or custodial.
Thus the test is whether compiling circumstances surrounding the stop, the police conduct demeanor and totality of behavior communicated to a reasonable person that he or she was not at liberty to walk away or to go about his business.
Presence of several officers, display of weapons, some physical touching, use of language or tone of voice, presence of other individual in the vicinity are all some of the surrounding circumstances the court will consider.
Applying the above legal synopsis to the facts of the case in hand, in totality, the encounter although slightly — can be deemed to be custodial or tantamount to a seizure.
First Jones was wedged between the police car and the wall of the ally leaving him very little room to maneuver or to walk about. Secondly and most importantly the questioning police officer had requested from his partner a record check/WALES of the defendant and thus clearly Jones would not walk away or could have walked away while the check was underway.
A warrant check can quickly turn a casual non-custodial encounter into seizure full on stop. Also the officer has asked for the cigarette box to be placed on the top of the police vehicle even temporary holding on to property belonging to Jones.
Generally, a reasonable person who can tell from the inquiries that the officer suspects him of something, and who cannot know whether the officer thinks there is sufficient reason to detain him, may well doubt that the officer would allow him to avoid or terminate the encounter and just walk away.
The trial court ruling was reversed and the conviction vacated.
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