from the underdeveloped-suspicion-and-overreactions dept
What’s unreasonable for law enforcement to do when searching for a criminal suspect? Not much, apparently. The Eighth Circuit Appeals Court has handed down a ruling that says detaining minors at gunpoint is just good policework when they’re in the general vicinity of a suspected criminal act. (via FourthAmendment.com)
Here’s what prompted this apparently excusable violation of rights, taken from the Appeals Court decision [PDF]:
At 3:21 p.m. on April 24, 2016, a Cedar Rapids police dispatcher issued an alert for “a disturbance with a weapon” at “Higley Avenue and Wellington Street” based on a 911 call from a complainant named Elaine. It is undisputed that the dispatch transmitted to officers reported, “Complainant stated that there are three black males they live at the corner house by the alley. They are outside arguing, one displayed a 10-32 [gun] that subject is a black male white t-shirt heavier set. Another black male is in all blue.” There was no description of the third individual, nor did the dispatcher provide the complainant’s name or address.
This information was obtained by the officers being sued twice. While driving to the scene of the reported crime, Officer Tyler Richardson ran into the 911 caller (although he did not know this at the time). The woman again described the suspected individuals, describing one of the suspects as wearing a white shirt and blue pants.
So, Officer Richardson had two suspects: one with a white t-shirt and another described alternately as being in “all blue” or with a white shirt and blue pants. Here’s who the officer decided were the most likely suspects:
He saw two people — later identified as Bates and Irvin — walking away from him along the left side of the street. The dashcam video shows Bates wearing a red shirt and black pants and Irvin wearing a blue shirt and blue pants.
This is what happened next:
Officer Richardson got out of his car and yelled, “Stop. Stop.” Irvin and Bates turned their heads, then stopped. Richardson said, “Yeah, you guys.” Bates replied, “No, we didn’t do nothing.” Richardson yelled, “Stop right now! Stop!” and drew his gun, pointed it at Irvin and Bates, and ordered them to get on the ground. Officer Jupin, whose squad car had arrived from the opposite direction, drew his gun and did the same. Irvin and Bates slowly got down on their knees. Richardson yelled, “Face down!” Richardson handcuffed Irvin. Jupin handcuffed Bates. A pat-down determined that neither was armed.
Handcuffed and seated on the ground, 16-year-old Irvin remained quiet. Bates, 33 years old, became agitated, speaking loudly and expressing anger that the officers had pulled their guns on him. Jupin stayed with Irvin and Bates while Richardson went a block away and talked to a heavyset black man in a white t-shirt the officers spotted while detaining Irvin and Bates. Richardson ordered the man to stop and put his hands on a stone wall next to the sidewalk. The man complied. Richardson patted him down for weapons, found none, and soon released him.
The pair remained handcuffed for twelve minutes as officers spoke to the witness. The witness confirmed they were not the ones she had seen involved in an altercation earlier. They were released.
The Eighth Circuit says there’s nothing wrong with this. As far as the court sees it, cops should be able to stop nearly anybody when a crime has been reported nearby.
It is well established that, “if police have a reasonable suspicion, grounded in specific and articulable facts, that a person they encounter was involved in or is wanted in connection with a completed felony, then a Terry stop may be made to investigate that suspicion.” United States v. Hensley, 469 U.S. 221, 229 (1985). Thus, Irvin and Bates could be stopped if there was reasonable suspicion that either or both were any of the three men involved in the reported disturbance.
Second, even limiting our focus to more serious gun offenses, Officer Richardson had descriptions of two of the three men. Irvin arguably fit one of the descriptions; Bates did not but the third participant had not been described.
That’s the rule in the Eighth Circuit: if you’re in the area a crime has been committed, you can be treated like a suspect and detained for as long as it takes to clear you of suspicion. In this case, it only took twelve minutes. But it could have taken longer. And, as this court sees it, time isn’t a factor when it comes to turning being detained into being arrested. If it had taken six hours, the court may have still considered this to be an investigative stop.
Here, Officers Richardson and Jupin actively investigated the disturbance after detaining Irvin and Bates, delayed by their refusal to cooperate. When backup arrived, Richardson interviewed a cooperative third individual and searched the area for a weapon. Jupin contacted a witness, who said that Irvin and Bates were not involved in the reported disturbance. Jupin promptly removed the handcuffs and told Irvin and Bates they were free to go, ending their detention. The entire encounter lasted approximately 13 minutes. We agree with the district court that Irvin and Bates “were detained no longer than was necessary for the officers to pursue their investigation” and therefore the lawful Terry stop “did not evolve into an arrest.”
So, what’s the endpoint? The court says this:
The circumstances here are readily distinguishable from the handcuffing and extended -9- detention in our recent, divided panel opinion in Haynes v. Minnehan…
But that decision held that a five minute detention was unlawful due to a lack of reasonable suspicion and the fact that officers didn’t appear too interested in investigating the alleged crime. That doesn’t clear much up. Instead, it creates a gray area where officers can detain someone indefinitely, so long as they have a little suspicion and some interest in pursuing an investigation.
The decision also cites another case where the Eighth Circuit found it acceptable to point guns at unarmed minors just because a criminal act was suspected to have occurred somewhere in the vicinity. That case is currently sitting before the Supreme Court. Whether or not the nation’s top court will do anything with it remains to be seen. But that case, summarized here by Jacob Sullum for Reason, is used as justification for the conclusion reached in this case.
On a rainy January evening in 2018, 14-year-old Weston Young and his 12-year-old brother, Haden, were walking home from their grandparents’ house in Springdale, Arkansas, after a family dinner. A police officer ordered them to stop, pointed a gun at them, forced them to lie on the ground, handcuffed them, and, together with a colleague, searched them. Their mother and stepfather tried to intervene, explaining who the boys were, where they had been, and where they were going. But the officer, Lamont Marzolf, rebuffed both of them, seemingly uninterested in information suggesting that he was treating two innocent boys like criminals.
“Neither [Weston] nor [Haden] did anything wrong” that night, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit later observed. “The boys simply happened onto the stage of a dangerous live drama being played out in their neighborhood because of criminals fleeing police nearby. [Weston] and [Haden] acted bravely, respectfully, and responsibly throughout the encounter, and their family would rightly be proud of them. Likewise, their family acted responsibly and respectfully during what would have undoubtedly been a frightening experience. In this situation, though, Officer Marzolf was doing his job protecting the people of Springdale from fleeing criminal suspects under challenging conditions.”
That’s the standard as far as the Eighth Circuit is concerned. If a cop is doing their job, then pointing guns at minors and violating rights is just acceptable collateral damage. The decision here rests on the court’s conclusion there was plenty of reasonable suspicion underlying this chain of events. The dissent is not so sure.
Viewing the record in the light most favorable to Irvin and Bates, Officers Richardson and Jupin lacked reasonable suspicion to stop and detain them. The dispatcher relayed an anonymous 911 call, but did not provide any information indicating the basis of the caller’s knowledge. The only corroboration identified is the information Officer Richardson received from the woman on the street. But at the time of the stop, Officer Richardson did not know the woman’s name or even that she was the 911 caller. Moreover, the woman did not corroborate the dispatcher’s report or report any criminal activity; she simply gave Officer Richardson a description of what a person who had just walked around the corner was wearing—wavering in her description and never mentioning a person in a red shirt—and said nothing more. In short, nothing the woman said to Officer Richardson linked the person she had just described to the conduct reported in the 911 call.
Even setting aside the reliability of the tip, neither Bates nor Irvin matched the description of the person who displayed the firearm—a heavyset man in a white t-shirt.
The dissent points out it’s not enough for race and gender to match the description. And without any further corroboration, Officer Richardson had, at best, conflicting descriptions of the suspects. On top of that, Richardson had no reason to believe they were involved in the reported criminal act. The caller had reported only one person with a weapon and that description matched neither of the two people Richardson detained at gunpoint.
The only suspicious activity the 911 caller described was that a heavyset man in a white t-shirt displayed a gun. There was no reason to believe any other person had a weapon, concealed or not, and a suspicion otherwise was nothing more than a hunch. While the 911 caller reported an argument where one man displayed a gun, she reported no threats, assaults, or shots fired. And when Officer Richardson turned the corner, the reported crime had ended, and neither Irvin nor Bates was behaving in a manner as to indicate they were armed or were engaged in––or about to engage in—criminal activity.
Making someone a suspect because someone else brandished a weapon isn’t how reasonable suspicion works. Citing another case where qualified immunity was awarded despite the “suspects” not matching the description and being accused of “fleeing” despite walking towards the police officer’s car doesn’t exactly shore up the shaky reasoning underpinning this decision.
This decision will also likely be appealed to the Supreme Court. The earlier case might be a better fit for reversal, given the disparity between the detainees and the description, but both are questionable. And both serve as cover for bad judgment calls by police officers — ones that culminate with weapons being pointed at minors.