Wake Forest Law Review

By: Matthew Welch & Gilbert Smolenski

On March 1, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit published an opinion for United States v. Brian Bowman.  The court held that Bowman’s Fourth Amendment right, freedom from unreasonable seizures, was violated and reversed the district court ruling.

I. Facts and Procedural History

In the predawn hours the morning of June 20, 2015, Officer Waycaster was patrolling on Route 25 in Henderson County, North Carolina.  He received a tip from the DEA that two individuals driving a red, older model Lexus could be narcotics runners.  The DEA also provided a license plate number for the car.  At 3:40 a.m., Officer Waycaster spotted an older red Lexus.  Rather than stopping the vehicle based on information from the DEA, Officer Waycaster followed the car “looking for [his] own infractions . . . for [his own] reason to stop the vehicle.”  When the vehicle weaved over a fog line and accelerated to 10 mph over the speed limit, Officer Waycaster pulled the vehicle over, suspecting that the driver may have been under the influence.  The government agrees that the DEA tip should not be considered in any legal analysis.

After stopping the vehicle, Officer Waycaster noticed two men in the vehicle: Bowman, the driver, and Alvarez, the passenger.  Officer Waycaster testified that Bowman appeared nervous because his hands were shaking, he failed to make eye contact with Waycaster, and that his carotid artery was moving, indicating an elevated heart rate.  Officer Waycaster did not see any alcohol or firearms in the vehicle, but he did notice an energy drink in the center console, food wrappers, and a suitcase in the back seat.  Officer Waycaster explained why Bowman was stopped and then asked Bowman to exit the vehicle and go to the patrol car so that Officer Waycaster could check his information.  Alvarez remained in the passenger seat the entire time.

After Bowman exited the vehicle, he consented to a weapons frisk.  Officer Waycaster found no weapons.  Officer Waycaster then told Bowman to sit in the patrol car while Waycaster ran his driver’s license and registration.  While Officer Waycaster was running Bowman’s information, he asked Bowman where he was coming from.  Bowman said that he was heading home after picking up Alvarez from Alvarez’s girlfriend’s house.  He said he was returning the favor because Alvarez had done the same for him in the past. When questioned about the address of Alvarez’s girlfriend’s house, Bowman said he did not know it but that it was in his car’s GPS.  Officer Waycaster also asked Bowman what he did for a living.  Bowman replied, saying that he was a welder but was currently unemployed.  Bowman also said that he recently bought the Lexus off Craigslist.  Officer Bowman testified that this was a suspicious activity because “it was a known practice with narcotics traffickers to either use rental vehicles or use multiple, different vehicles, or buy and sell vehicles to transport narcotics.”  Officer Waycaster, believing that Bowman was not under the influence, then issued Bowman a ticket for speeding and unsafe movement of the vehicle.

Bowman then began to exit the vehicle but Officer Waycaster asked if he could speak further with Bowman.  Bowman consented.  After another round of questions about what Bowman and Alvarez had been doing that night, Officer Waycaster, who was seated in the patrol car with Bowman said that he “was going to ask [Alvarez] questions if you don’t mind, okay?”  Bowman responded, “okay,” and remained in the vehicle.  As Officer Waycaster exited the patrol car he told Bowman, “just hang tight right there, okay.”  Bowman responded with, “oh, okay.”  Office Waycaster testified that at this point, Bowman was not free to get out of the patrol car because Waycaster had developed, from the traffic stop alone, reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

Office Waycaster then went back to the Lexus and interviewed Alvarez about what had transpired before the two men were pulled over.  Alvarez’s story conflicted with Bowman’s.  Officer Waycaster then return to the patrol car and asked Bowman if there was meth in the Lexus, to which Bowman responded no.  Bowman then refused to let Officer Waycaster search the Lexus.  Thereafter, Officer Waycaster removed Alvarez from the Lexus and placed him in the patrol car with Bowman.  Then Office Waycaster summoned a K-9 team.  The K-9 team passed around the outside of the Lexus.  The dog alerted an officer that illegal narcotics were present in the vehicle.  Thereafter, Office Waycaster and the K-9 handler searched the interior of the car.  They found meth, digital scales, and containers of ammunition.

Bowman was charged with possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine.  Bowman filed a motion to suppress the methamphetamine evidence, arguing that Officer Waycaster unlawfully prolonged the completed traffic stop without consent or reasonable suspicion.  The district court followed the recommendation of the magistrate judge in denying the motion to suppress.  The magistrate judge admitted that Bowman was not free to leave the patrol car but that the prolonged detention was permissible because “Waycaster had a justified, reasonable suspicion that Defendant Bowman was engaged in criminal activity.” The judge said that the totality of the circumstances supported this finding.  Bowman then filed an appeal.

II. Standard of Review

The Fourth Circuit reviews the district court’s determination that the officer had a reasonable suspicion to prolong the traffic stop de novo.

III. Reasoning

First, a traffic stop must be reasonable.  Here, Bowman does not challenge the reasonableness of the traffic stop.  Bowman was swerving and traveling 10 mph over the speed limit.  Instead Bowman’s Fourth Amendment challenge rests on the unreasonableness of his prolonged detention in the patrol car. The Fourth Amendment allows an officer to conduct an investigation unrelated to the reasons for the traffic stop as long as it does not lengthen the roadside detention.  To extend the length of the detention beyond the time necessary to accomplish the traffic stop’s purpose, an officer must have reasonable suspicion or receive the driver’s consent.  Here, the officer did not receive Bowman’s consent or have a reasonable suspicion.

The government argued that Bowman consented to the prolonged detention when he said “okay” after Officer Waycaster asked him to “hang tight right there, ok?”  However, under a reasonable person standard, the court said that this was not consent by Bowman.  Bowman never had time to respond to Officer Waycaster before Waycaster exited the vehicle and many would feel they were not free to leave in a similar situation. Furthermore, Waycaster was not asking a question, instead he was instructing Bowman what to do.  Thus, when Bowman remained in the patrol car as the officer went to question Alvarez, the encounter was no longer a consensual one but instead became a non-consensual seizure.

After the Fourth Circuit concluded the search constituted a non-consensual seizure, the Court then analyzed whether Waycaster’s “prolonged seizure was justified by reasonable suspicion.”  The Court noted there is no precise definition for what constitutes reasonable suspicion.  Instead, reasonable suspicion is a commonsense, nontechnical standard that considers the realities of everyday life.  The bar for reasonable suspicion is less than the probable cause standard and the facts articulated by the stopping officer and trial court must be taken in their totality.  However, each factor can be analyzed separately by the court before being taken together in a full consideration of the circumstances surrounding the traffic stop.

The Fourth Circuit focuses on four specific factors in its analysis.  First, Waycaster noted that both Bowman and Alvarez appeared to be nervous.  However, a driver’s nervousness is not a good indicator since most citizens are nervous when dealing with police.  The record indicated that Bowman and Alvarez did not exhibit any signs of nervousness above the norm, and the government conceded Bowman was calm once exiting the vehicle.  Moreover, although a suspect’s increased heart rate, which can be evidenced by a suspect’s throbbing carotid artery, can help support there was a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, the present facts do not show Bowman demonstrated nervousness beyond the norm. The fact that Bowman remained calm in the patrol car and failed to make eye contact with an officer is not indicative of criminal behavior.  Thus, the first factor weighed in favor of the Bowman.

Second, Waycaster stated that several articles in the car, specifically clothes, food, and an energy drink, helped give rise to a reasonable suspicion.  However, these items are consistent with innocent travel and “in the absence of contradictory information,” cannot reasonably imply criminal activity.  While Bowman may have made false statements about his travel plans, the government failed to connect that fact to any wrongdoing in the case.  Therefore, just the articles alone cannot be used to established untruthfulness, and subsequently reasonable suspicion.

Third, the district court noted that Bowman’s inability to recall Alvarez’s girlfriend’s address contributed to Waycaster’s reasonable suspicion.  But, the Fourth Circuit stated this was entirely reasonable, as it is clear from the video recording that Bowman repeatedly said he used the car’s GPS to find the house, and Waycaster could find the address by looking at the car’s GPS history.  The government failed to connect Bowman’s response with criminal activity, and the Fourth Circuit stated it is reasonable that Bowman did not know the address and was relying on GPS in a dark, unfamiliar area.

Finally, Waycaster believed Bowman’s vehicle purchases gave suspicion of criminal activity since he thought it was strange Bowman could afford to purchase multiple vehicles while unemployed and the use of multiple cars was a known practice of drug traffickers.  The Fourth Circuit readily disposed of Bowman’s vehicle purchasing habits, noting that Waycaster made “unsubstantiated assumptions.”  Even though Bowman was unemployed, there are numerous possible explanations to explain the car purchases that are all within the confines of the law.  Likewise, innocent travelers may use multiple vehicles, some of which they could buy from Craigslist, and that fact is entitled to little weight.

Consequently, none of the factors alone provide a basis for reasonable suspicion.  Even when looking at the totality of the circumstances, as mandated by precedent, the Fourth Circuit similarly found that the “combination of wholly innocent factors” did not give rise to reasonable suspicion.  Therefore, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court, as Bowman’s motion to suppress should have been granted.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

By Eric Jones

On December 18, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the criminal case United States v. Stover.  Lavelle Stover was convicted of possession of a firearm as a felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).  At trial, Stover motioned to suppress the firearm that he discarded in front of his vehicle, but the motion was denied.  On appeal Stover argued that the firearm should have been suppressed as the product of an illegal seizure under the Fourth Amendment.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed his conviction.

The Arrest and Trial

In the early morning hours of March 13, 2013, police noticed Stover sitting in a vehicle that was double-parked in a small private parking lot.  When they returned several minutes later and saw that Stover was still double-parked, the officers decided to approach the vehicle because there had recently been several violent robberies in the area.  The uniformed officers activated their emergency lights and aimed a spotlight on Stover’s vehicle as they pulled in to block the car in the parking lot.  As the officers exited the patrol car, Stover exited his vehicle and made his way to the front of his car.  He completely ignored the officers’ ordering him to stop and return to his vehicle.  Stover tossed a loaded nine millimeter handgun into the grass in front of his vehicle.  One officer proceeded along the right side of Stover’s vehicle and confronted him with his gun drawn, believing that Stover was preparing to run.  At that point Stover silently complied with the officers’ orders and returned to his vehicle.

At trial in the District Court for the District of Maryland, Stover motioned to suppress the handgun on the theory that it was the product of an illegal seizure under the Fourth Amendment.  The District Court found that Stover had not submitted to police authority until after abandoning the firearm, and thus the protections Fourth Amendment did not apply.  The firearm was entered into evidence, and Stover was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 57 months in prison.  Stover filed a timely appeal.

The Fourth Amendment’s Protections Against Illegal Seizure

As the Fourth Circuit explained, the moment that Stover was seized is vital to determine whether or not the firearm should have been suppressed.  If the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop Stover, the Fourth Amendment is not implicated and the weapon was properly entered.  If there was not reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant, however, the Circuit Court explained that the exact circumstances of the stop are important to determine whether an illegal seizure has occurred.  The Fourth Circuit applied a two-part test outlined in California v. Hodari D..

First, the Circuit Court asked whether the Fourth Amendment was implemented due to a show of authority by the officers.  In order to determine whether a show of authority had occurred, the Supreme Court has explained that you must consider whether “in view of all the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.”  As applied here, the Fourth Circuit held that blocking in Stover’s car with a marked police car, activating the emergency lights, using their spotlight, and approaching Stover’s vehicle in uniform all clearly indicated that a show of force had been made, and thus the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable seizures.

The second part of the two-part test in order to determine whether the firearm could be admitted into evidence asks precisely when the defendant was seized.  The Fourth Circuit explained that after submitting to police authority, the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable seizure.  If the defendant has not capitulated to the police’s orders, however, there has been at most an “attempted seizure,” and the protections of the Fourth Amendment are not applicable until after the defendant has submitted.  The Fourth Circuit explained that if a defendant is fleeing from the police, he has not submitted and thus anything he tosses to the side as he runs is not subject to the protections of the Fourth Amendment.  If, however, the defendant has submitted (by being tackled, by stopping voluntarily, or any other submission), the Fourth Amendment applies to anything found on his person.

Stover Did Not Submit to the Officers until After Abandoning His Firearm

In this case, the Fourth Circuit held that Stover had not submitted to the officers until after abandoning the firearm, and thus the Fourth Amendment was not applicable.  The Court relied on the fact that Stover exited his vehicle despite the flashing emergency lights and direct orders to remain in his vehicle.  He then proceeded toward the front of his car, directly away from the officers, and did not indicate that he heard them or intended to comply.  Only after abandoning his firearm and being confronted by the armed officer did Stover submit to their authority and follow their commands.  Thus, because Stover was not seized until after he threw the handgun into the grass, he simply abandoned it and it was not seized by the police.

One Circuit Judge dissented in this case, arguing that Stover acquiesced to the officers’ orders by remaining on the scene and simply attempted to abandon his firearm while remaining under police control.  If this were the case, the legality of the seizure would have been determined by whether or not the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop Stover.  The majority, however, held that ignoring verbal orders and proceeding away from officers is not consistent with submitting to the police, and thus no seizure had yet occurred.

The Fourth Circuit Affirmed Stover’s Conviction

Because the evidence indicated that Stover had not submitted to the police and may have been attempting to flee when he abandoned the handgun, the Fourth Circuit affirmed that he had not been seized and thus his firearm was not the product of an illegal search or seizure.  Because the handgun was properly admitted as evidence, therefore, the Circuit affirmed Stover’s conviction.