United States v. Jones, No. 11-4268

Decided: May 10, 2012

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s denial of a motion to suppress evidence.  After considering the totality of circumstances, the Defendant prevailed in convincing the Court that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated which warranted suppression of evidence.  Law enforcement officials patrolling an area of Richmond, Virginia which is targeted for drug and weapons interdiction noticed the Defendant’s car with out of state tags and occupied by four African-American males.  The detective and officer decided to follow the vehicle because the out of state tags made them suspicious of drug activity, and looked closely for some kind of traffic violation to warrant a stop but did not find one.  Once the vehicle stopped inside an apartment complex, two of the passengers walked away from the vehicle, and the patrol car stopped behind the Defendant’s vehicle partially blocking it.  What followed was an allegedly consensual encounter whereby the law enforcement officials requested the Defendant to lift his shirt, conduct a pat down, and requested his identification.  The Detective learned that the Defendant’s license had been revoked, and the Officer conducted a second pat down where he discovered a handgun in the crotch of his pants.  During the search incident to arrest, a small bag of marijuana was discovered.

The Defendant moved to suppress the evidence of the marijuana and handgun because the law enforcement officials had violated his Fourth Amendment rights.  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals considered the totality of circumstances to test whether the objective reasonable person would have felt free to decline the officers’ request or otherwise terminate the encounter.  The Fourth Circuit relied heavily on the fact that the encounter began with the Defendant being aware of being followed by law enforcement officials, which distinguished this encounter from the routine police citizen encounter.  Moreover, the patrol car blocking the Defendant’s car, could have given the Defendant the impression he was not free to leave.  Further, though the Government relied on the requests made by the officer, the encounter did not begin with the traditional hallmark of a police official asking to speak with a citizen; it began with the officer asking the Defendant to lift his shirt.  Distinguishing the facts of this case from the seminal “reasonable suspicion” cases (Drayton, Bostick), the Fourth Circuit held that the circumstances weighed in favor of an unconstitutional seizure, and reversed the trial court’s judgment and remanded for further proceedings.

Full Opinion

-Jennifer Routh

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