Thursday, February 05, 2009

Fourth Amendment Requires Initial Determination of "Seizure"

In United States v. Crandell, No. 07-4004 (Jan. 29, 2009), police responded to an anonymous tip regarding a Black male with blond-tipped dreadlocks in the area carrying a handgun in his waistband. The officers apparently recognized the tip as a description of the defendant. As the officers arrived in the area, they observed the defendant walking in their direction. The officers approached the defendant and conducted a pat down search of his person.

The trial court suppressed the gun as fruit of an illegal seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The court ruled that the anonymous tip was insufficient to support a reasonable suspicion to justify the stop. The trial court apparently assumed that police had seized the defendant when they initiated the pat down search. The government appealed, arguing that the defendant had not been seized pursuant to Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.

The Court reiterated that before the trial court could address the sufficiency of the anonymous tip to support the requisite reasonable suspicion for an investigatory stop, it first had to determine whether the encounter between the defendant and police implicated Fourth Amendment, i.e., whether the defendant had been seized.

The Third Circuit then provided a detailed discussion of the three forms of citizen-police interaction recognized by the Supreme Court, each of which requires a different level of scrutiny under the Fourth Amendment. At one end of the spectrum is a consensual encounter, where the officer merely requests information. The citizen may choose to engage in the encounter or terminate it. This consensual encounter involves the least amount of intrusion upon an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights, and therefore does not require the officer to develop a level of suspicion before he stops the individual. At the other end of the spectrum is a full arrest, for which police must have probable cause. Between the consensual encounter and the full arrest is the investigatory stop, which is more intrusive upon an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights than a consensual encounter, but less intrusive than a full arrest. To justify an investigatory stop, police must have a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the individual has engaged in criminal activity.

The Court also elucidated the meaning of "seizure" under the Fourth Amendment, clarifying that a seizure occurs when a citizen is restrained by police either by physical force or a show of authority.

The Court vacated the lower court’s ruling and remanded the case to allow the lower court to determine, based upon the facts and circumstances surrounding the encounter, whether the defendant initially had been subjected to a seizure or a consensual encounter.

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