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Week 36 (2019)

Week of September 2, 2019 through September 6, 2019

Gordon v. Schilling (King, by designation 9/4/2019):  The Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded the district court’s award of summary judgment in favor of Virginia Department of Corrections’ Health Services Director and Chief Physician, finding genuine issues of material fact as to whether defendants’ actions constituted deliberate indifference in violation of the plaintiff’s Eighth Amendment rights. Full Opinion.

Sprint Nextel Corp. v. Wireless Buybacks Holdings, LLC (Richardson 9/5/2019):  The Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded the district court’s award of summary judgment in favor of plaintiff Sprint Nextel Corp. on its tortious interference claim, finding Sprint’s terms and conditions did not unambiguously prohibit customers from reselling upgrade phones that were not connected to Sprint’s network. Full Opinion.

Highlight Case

United States v. Curry

Decided: September 5, 2019

In Curry, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s order suppressing evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds and remanded the case for further proceedings.  

While patrolling on September 8, 2017 at approximately 9:00 PM, Richmond Police Department officers heard several gunshots.  The officers immediately responded and were at the location the shots came from in approximately thirty-five seconds.  Upon arriving at the location they thought the shots had come from, officers spotted several individuals, including the defendant, walking away from where the gunfire had occurred.  The officers used their flashlights to illuminate the individuals and directed them to lift their shirts so officers could visually inspect their waistbands for concealed firearms.  The defendant refused to comply and when officers attempted to conduct a pat-down, the defendant resisted.  After handcuffing the defendant, officers recovered a silver revolver from the ground nearby.  The defendant was arrested, charged, and indicted for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Prior to trial, the defendant moved to suppress the revolver, arguing officers lacked reasonable suspicion to conduct their initial stop and search.  The district court agreed, reasoning that because officers did not have particularized suspicion and were not attempting to detain only the defendant, there were insufficient grounds to conduct a Terrystop.  The district court also held that the exigent circumstances exception was inapplicable, reasoning that the exigent circumstances exception could not supersede the requirement for individualized reasonable suspicion. Finding the initial stop violated the Fourth Amendment, the district court suppressed the pistol as evidence without considering whether the officers’ follow-on frisk of the defendant was justified. 

Reviewing the district court’s legal conclusions de novo, the Fourth Circuit began its analysis by stating the “touchstone” of Fourth Amendment analysis is reasonableness; whether the government’s interest in conducting a search outweighs the invasion of the individual’s legitimate expectation of privacy.  Under this reasonableness analysis, the Court opined, officers often need some suspicion of criminal activity before a search is reasonable, but even without such suspicion a search or seizure may still be reasonable when special governmental needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement, justify the intrusion.  The Court went on to state that these special needs arise only in limited circumstances, such as thwarting a terrorist attack or catching a dangerous criminal, that extend beyond “ordinary crime control.”  Noting that there is often overlap between interests that are “special needs” and the government’s interest in crime control, the Court stated that whenever such an overlap exists the question is whether the primary objective of the search was to generate evidence for law enforcement purposes or to serve a need beyond the ordinary need for law enforcement.  

Turning to the facts presented, the Court first held that the officers’ response to the gunshots represented a special need, namely an exigent circumstance, that justified a limited search and seizure without individualized suspicion.  Because the officers in this case were responding to shots fired in a densely populated urban area mere seconds before they arrived, they were faced with the potential that a shooter may continue to threaten the lives of both the public and the officers themselves.  Based on this, the Court stated the immediate purpose of the stop and flashlight search of individuals in the area was to protect the officers and public from those dangers.  

After establishing that the officers’ actions were within the special-needs doctrine, the Court went on to conduct an analysis of whether the intrusion was reasonable under the balancing test established in Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47 (1979).   This test requires the Court to balance the gravity of the public concerns served by the seizure, the degree to which the seizure advanced those concerns, and the severity of the interference with the individual’s liberty.  The Court first found that the public concerns were “grave” – several gunshots had been fired in a residential area raising serious immediate concerns about public and officer safety.  The Court next found that the limited seizure of stopping individuals, shining a flashlight on them, and asking them to lift their shirts so their waistband could be visually examined were targeted to address the urgent public safety concerns.  Disagreeing with the district court, the Court held that near certainty that a criminal is using a route to get away from the scene of a crime is not necessary to stop individuals travelling that route as long as it is reasonably expected that the criminals would use that route.  Based on the facts known to the officers at the time, their decision to briefly seize the first individuals they encountered travelling away from the location of the gunshots was reasonable.  Lastly, the Court noted that the seizure in question only slightly interfered with individual liberty.  Noting that the intrusion was minimal in both time and scope, the Court stated that “it is hard to imagine a less intrusive method to determine whether the men were armed.”  

The Court concluded that the officers had responded quickly to a dangerous situation that posed threats to both ordinary citizens and the officers themselves and that the officers’ response, briefly seizing and visually “flashlight searching” individuals found leaving the scene was reasonable.  Based on this conclusion the Court reversed the district court’s conclusion that the initial stop was unlawful and remanded the case for determination of whether reasonable suspicion existed to justify the follow-on frisk of the defendant.

Judge Floyd, dissenting, would affirm the district court’s holding and argues that the majority’s “grafting” the special needs doctrine onto the exigent circumstances doctrine unduly broadens the exigent circumstances exception.  The dissent states that the special needs and exigent circumstances are fundamentally distinct, serve different objectives, and apply to different circumstances.  In the dissent’s view, the facts presented do not create a special needs exception and therefore the case must be examined under a “narrowly construed” exigent circumstances doctrine.  Noting that the exigent circumstances exception most often applies to warrantless searches in the home, not suspicion-less searches of individuals, the dissent points out that there is scant case law outlining how the exception may apply to the facts presented.  However, in the dissent’s opinion, existing precedent where the exigent circumstances exception was extended to investigatory seizures involved limiting principals, such as narrowly targeting seizures based on specific information about a known crime within a controlled geographic area, that were not presented in this case.  Without these limitations, the dissent argues, the majority’s opinion would allow officers to not only stop individuals in the area of suspected gunshots but also to enter homes in the area without individualized suspicion. Because this would go “far beyond the intended purpose and scope of the exigent circumstances exception” the dissent would affirm.    

Full Opinion.

Michael Stover