Appeals Court Affirms Protections against Illegal Seizure & Search in U.S. v. Slocumb.

On October 22, 2015, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit decided United States v. Slocumb, in which the Court considered an incident that occurred in 2013 and led to charges against Mr. Slocumb.  In its decision, the Court held that the accused’s Fourth Amendment rights to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures had been violated by the Culpeper Police Department because they did not have “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity” when Slocumb was seized.  Below, I discuss the case and the implications of the Court’s reasoning.

Slocumb: The Facts of the Seizure and Search

The facts of the Slocumb case are not atypical in terms of how police become involved in investigating, and ultimately charging, individuals.  Near midnight on March 18, 2013, Mr. Slocumb was with his girlfriend and a child near a closed business.  They were standing between two parked cars when police observed them.  The police observed Mr. Slocumb and his girlfriend moving an infant car seat between the two vehicles.

Officer Chilton approached Slocumb and his girlfriend after noticing them.  Interestingly, the police officers were at the location because they were about to execute a search warrant on a business or residence that was completely unrelated to Slocumb.  Nevertheless, Officer Chilton engaged Mr. Slocumb in conversation and asked him why he was in the area.  Without making eye contact, Mr. Slocumb answered the Officer’s questions in a low, mumbled voice.  The Officer later testified that he believed Mr. Slocumb was being evasive because he would not make eye contact and mumbled his responses.  This interaction lasted less than one minute.

After believing Mr. Slocumb was acting evasively, Officer Chilton called over another officer to stay with the couple and their infant, and he further instructed the second officer that Mr. Slocumb and his girlfriend were not allowed to leave.  At some point after this instruction, Mr. Slocumb was asked to identify himself by providing identification. Mr. Slocumb replied he didn’t have any, and gave a name the police later found out to be false. Mr. Slocumb was placed under arrest after police learned he had provided a false identification.

After being arrested, Mr. Slocumb was searched and $6,000.00 were recovered from his person.  Then, the vehicle Slocumb was driving was searched, and drugs were found within the vehicle.  He was subsequently charged with drug-related offenses.

Reviewing these facts, the Court concluded that Mr. Slocumb’s rights were violated because the police didn’t have sufficient reasonable suspicion to believe Mr. Slocumb was engaged in criminal conduct.  Key to this assessment was the timing of the seizure.  Since Officer Chilton told the second officer that the pair was not permitted to leave, they were considered “seized” for Fourth Amendment purposes at that time.  Thus, the Court only considered what the police knew about Mr. Slocumb at that moment to determine whether his rights were violated.

The only information known to police when they seized Mr. Slocumb was the following:

“1) Chilton’s awareness of the high-crime nature of the area;

2) the lateness of the hour;

3) Slocumb’s presence in the parking lot of a commercial business that had been closed for several hours;

4) Slocumb’s conduct, including appearing to hurry [his girlfriend], giving low, mumbled responses to Chilton’s questioning, and avoiding eye contact with Chilton; and

5) that Slocumb’s conduct seemed ‘inconsistent’ with his explanation for his presence.”  (United States v. Slocumb, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 18343)

The Court first recognized that these factors were proper to consider.  However, without more information at the time of the seizure, the Court concluded that these facts and circumstances alone were inadequate to formulate in the minds of police a reasonable basis for believing Slocumb was involved in criminal activity.  Without such a basis, the Court suppressed the stop and all evidence recovered after the illegal detention.

Slocumb and You: What Should You Do if Questioned or Seized by the Police?

What does this mean for you if you find yourself being questioned as a suspect by police?  If the police seize a suspect before they have any reasonable basis to believe the suspect was involved in criminal conduct, then that seizure should be deemed illegal.  More specifically, this means that as long as the suspect gives some answers (regardless of whether they are loud and clear or mumbling and low) and does not actively attempt to evade the police before, during, or after the questioning, then mere presence in a high crime area, at a late hour, and a seemingly inconsistent explanation will not be enough to support a seizure.  On the other hand, when a person does attempt to evade a police officer, then low mumbling answers and lack of eye contact could be sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion that the person is involved in criminal activity.

While a person has the right to remain silent, their evasion of questions is a factor courts can, and likely will, consider in determining whether police had reasonable suspicion to stop the suspect.  This conclusion, unfortunately, creates a tension between one’s Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and not incriminate oneself, since the failure to answer questions may be deemed evasive and sufficient to support a seizure.  Additionally, more active evasiveness, like fleeing from police, will make it even more likely that courts will find the seizure was supported by reasonable suspicion on the part of police.

If you find yourself in a position where you believe police violated your rights, and then charged you with one or more offenses, make sure you find an attorney with knowledge and familiarity with the laws governing search and seizure procedures.  Our firm regularly handles such issues, and we know what factors influence courts’ decisions.  If you find that you have questions about your case, do not hesitate to call the trusted Fairfax criminal defense attorneys at Greenspun Shapiro PC today to find out more information about the merits of your case.

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