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U.S. v. STOVER, NO. 14-4283

Decided: December 18, 2015  

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress a firearm as the fruit of an illegal seizure.  

In the early morning hours, two uniformed police officers were patrolling the “King Sector” of Temple Hills, Maryland. This was an area where several violent robberies had recently occurred. At approximately 1:00 a.m., the officers noticed a vehicle double-parked in the small private parking lot of an apartment building. Despite noting that it was “not suspicious for someone to be sitting in a parking lot,” the officers returned a few minutes later to check on the car. Because of the car’s out-of-state plates, the area’s reputation for crime, and the double-parking, the officers concluded they had the right to stop the occupant of the car to see what was going on.  The officers pulled behind the vehicle, activated the emergency lights, and illuminated the driver’s side of the vehicle with a spotlight.  

During the suppression hearing, there was conflicting testimony between the officers and a passenger that was in the vehicle. After considering the conflicting accounts, the district court found the following facts by a preponderance of the evidence. When the police vehicle pulled up, Stover did at some point get out of the vehicle and open two of the vehicle’s doors. Stover, at some point, did walk to the front of the car. At some point, one of the officers said, “get back in the car” and tried to stop Stover from getting out of the car. When one of the officers saw Stover move to the front of the vehicle, the officer ran to the front of the vehicle with his gun out, and put the gun in Stover’s face. It was the presence of the officer’s gun in the face of Stover that caused Stover to “acquiesce” and for Stover to drop a gun in front of the vehicle. Only after Stover dropped his loaded gun did he comply with the officers and got back in the vehicle.

Stover was charged with a single count of possessing a firearm as a felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) (2012). Stover attempted to suppress the gun as the fruit of an illegal seizure. The government did not maintain that the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop Stover; however, the government argued that under California v. Hodari, Stover never submitted to police and thus was not seized until after he dropped the loaded gun at the hood of the vehicle. The district court agreed and because Stover dropped his gun prior to complying with police orders, the district court found that the gun had been abandoned before the seizure and was admissible at trial. Stover was found guilty and appealed, challenging the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress.

Neither party disputed that a seizure occurred during the interaction in the parking lot. However, they did dispute exactly when the seizure occurred. Stover argues that the officers seized him, without reasonable suspicion, when the police vehicle pulled up behind his vehicle in the parking lot, rendering his gun the fruit of an illegal seizure. Conversely, the government argues that the officers did not seize Stover until after he abandoned his firearm in front of his car, prior to submitting to police authority.

The Fourth Amendment protects the rights of the people against unreasonable seizures. Generally, law enforcement officers do not seize individuals by merely approaching them in a public place and putting questions to them. In Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court explained, “only when the officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen may we conclude that a seizure has occurred.” When there is an absence of physical force, a seizure requires both a “show of authority” from law enforcement officers and “submission to the assertion of authority” by the defendant. In order to display a “show of authority,” an objective test is used, looking at the circumstances of the incident and whether a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave. But without actual submission to the police, there has only been an attempted seizure, which is not subject to protection by the Fourth Amendment.

First, the Fourth Circuit considered whether, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person would have felt free to leave after the officers pulled behind Stover’s car. The officers blocked Stover’s vehicle, were armed and uniformed and did not ask if they could speak to him, activated the blue lights, drew their weapons, and shined a spotlight on Stover. The Fourth Circuit determined this was not a close question and the police officers’ aggressive conduct from the start of their interaction would have made a reasonable person feel unable to leave.

Second, the Fourth Circuit considered whether Stover’s conduct constituted a submission to the assertion of authority by the police officers. Stover argues that he passively acquiesced to police authority by remaining at the scene. However, the district court determined his actions did not show his submission to the assertion of the officer’s authority. The evidence shows that instead of remaining seated in his car, Stover exited the vehicle with the loaded gun in his hand. Officers attempted to get him to stay in the car; however, Stover continued to walk away towards the front of the vehicle. Only after Stover dropped his firearm did he comply with police orders. The Fourth Circuit concluded that, under the totality of the circumstances, it could not hold that “walking away from police with a loaded gun in hand, in contravention of police orders, constitutes submission to police authority.” Therefore, the Fourth Circuit held the gun was not the fruit of the seizure, but was abandoned.

Judge Gregory dissented, believing that Stover passively acquiesced to the police’s show of authority because he remained at the focal point of the investigation without attempting to avoid being seized; therefore, the firearm would have been the fruit of an illegal seizure.

Full Opinion

Austin T. Reed