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United States v. Duty

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Defendant appeals a conviction of being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    For purposes of the Fourth Amendment, an individual is “seized” when, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person in the position of the individual would believe that he was not free to leave.

    Facts.

    Richmond, Virginia police officer Winston was patrolling a portion of the city managed by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority and restricted only to residents and guests. Winston noticed a vehicle parked in a cul-de-sac with its engine running. The occupants of the vehicle, Jeremiah Duty (Defendant) and Jonathan Bish, looked at Winston as she passed by. Winston circled around, activated her emergency lights and pulled behind the car to “see if they were ok, what their business was, and if they had a legitimate or social reason for being in the area.” Winston asked Defendant for his identification. After running a check on the identification, Winston learned that Defendant had an outstanding warrant. After confirming the warrant, Winston placed Defendant under arrest and conducted a search of his person. Winston found several rounds of .22 ammunition, a syringe, and some pills. Winston also searched the trunk of the vehicle and seized a .22 caliber rifle. Defendant was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized, arguing that the search was unlawful. The district court denied Defendant’s motion and he was convicted. Defendant appealed.

    Issue.

    Whether an individual is “seized” when, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person in the position of the individual would believe that he was not free to leave.

    Held.

    Yes. The trial court’s ruling is vacated and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. For purposes of the Fourth Amendment, an individual is “seized” when, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person in the position of the individual would believe that he was not free to leave.

    Discussion.

    The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures. A person is “seized” under the Fourth Amendment if, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person in the position of the suspect would believe that he was not free to leave or to terminate the encounter. Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 436-37 (1991).Here, Winston seized Defendant for purposes of the Fourth Amendment when she activated her emergency lights on top of her car and pulled behind him. At point, Winston was exercising a position of authority and it was clear that Defendant was not free to leave. Because Defendant was “seized” for Fourth Amendment purposes, Winston was required to have reasonable suspicion that Defendant might be conducting criminal activity. In Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), the U.S. Supreme Court held that there must be “at least a minimal level of objective justification for making the stop.” That would be something more than a hunch but less than full probable cause. In assessing police conduct during a Terry stop, courts must look to the totality of the circumstances. During such a stop, officers may take steps necessary to protect their personal safety, check for identification, and maintain the status quo. Here, Winston lacked the reasonable suspicion necessary to seize Defendant to the point of activating her emergency lights and pulling her vehicle in behind Defendant’s car. The only evidence presented was that Defendant was sitting in an idle car on a private street and looked at Winston as she drove by. Such conduct does not provide a basis for reasonable suspicion.


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