Slouching in the wrong neighborhood leads to a stop—and a decade in jail

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

A police officer is allowed to stop a suspect, temporarily detaining him for further investigation, when the officer has reasonable suspicion that the suspect is engaged in criminal activity. Just a hunch is not enough. The officer needs specific and particularized facts supporting his suspicion. In a decision last week in United States v. Bridges, the Sixth Circuit found reasonable suspicion on facts that I think shouldn't have been enough. The officer had a hunch, but I don't think he had enough suspicion to justify the stop.

Here are the facts. Officer Jeffrey Neese was driving a marked patrol car near an intersection in a desolate area of Detroit. Neese was driving slowly down the street around 5 to 10 miles per hour. Neese knew the neighborhood well, and he had made arrests in the neighborhood for various gun and drug charges. Google Street View gives this picture of the location just a few months before the stop:

That's the street. But instead of it being daytime, it was shortly after dark at 5:30 p.m. on a chilly December night. Officer Neese saw a car parked along the side of the street. In the dark from about a half block away, Neese saw a silhouette of a person in the driver's seat. As the squad car came closer, though, Neese looked again and the silhouette was gone. Neese looked again seconds later and he saw a person hunched over in the front seat of the car. This was all in the dark as Neese was slowly driving down the street.

Held: These facts amount to reasonable suspicion that the person in the car was trying to steal it. That permitted the officer to detain the man, Walter Bridges, for suspected car theft. A search revealed several guns and cocaine in the car. Bridges was convicted of gun and drug offenses and sentenced to 116 months imprisonment.

Why did these facts amount to reasonable suspicion of car theft? According to Judge Griffin, joined by Judge Suhrheinrich and District Judge Stafford, there were two reasons.

First, the officer testified that the stop occurred in a high-crime area, which is relevant under Illinois v. Wardlow:

To be sure, an individual's presence in an area of expected criminal activity, standing alone, is not enough to support a reasonable, particularized suspicion that the person is committing a crime. Yet officers are not required to ignore the relevant characteristics of a location in assessing reasonable suspicion. And the fact that the stop occurs in a 'high crime area' is among the relevant contextual considerations in a [reasonable suspicion] analysis [under Wardlow].

Second, the officer thought the suspect was trying to hide from the police:

The present case involves more than an officer's hunch in a bad neighborhood. Specifically, defendant's furtive movements made in response to a police presence heavily contributed to Neese's suspicions. After noticing defendant's silhouette, Officer Neese pulled forward into the intersection and saw defendant slouch down as the police cruiser drew closer to his vehicle. While Neese did not testify to seeing defendant look at the police cruiser, it was reasonable for Neese to infer as much; the cruiser was fully marked and traveling at five to ten miles per hour.

Defendant responds that he offered an innocuous basis for his slumped posture, testifying he had been checking his cellular phone. But an innocuous explanation does not negate an officer's suspicions. . . . [T]he question is not whether there is a possible innocent explanation for each of the factors, but whether all of them taken together give rise to a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity may be afoot. Moreover, the district court did not accept defendant's explanation. The district court instead credited Neese's testimony that when he pulled closer to defendant's car, it "appeared" to him that defendant leaned over to avoid detection, not for some other purpose such as looking at his cellular phone.

Defendant does not challenge this finding. Ducking out of an officer's view, in conjunction with other factors, can supply reasonable suspicion of illegal activity.

Judgments about reasonable suspicion are always about line-drawing and inference. With that said, I think this decision is wrong.

First, while the officer testified that he thought the suspect was trying to hide from the police, that was just his subjective conclusion. All the officer saw was a silhouette, then no silhouette, then a person hunched over. How does that alone amount to reasonable suspicion of car theft? It's one thing to say that an officer's experience can inform whether furtive movements should be interpreted as trying to avoid the police because a crime is afoot. Here, though, the court takes a sparse record and uses the officer's experience to fill in whether there was a furtive movement at all. That seems like a big stretch.

It's true that Wardlow allows courts to consider the neighborhood. Office Neese testified that this was a high-crime area. But how far does that go? I think Wardlow was right in allowing officers to consider the neighborhood when assessing reasonable suspicion. When you're trying to figure out what is happening in the world around you, it's natural to take into account the environment you're in. But I don't think the "high-crime area" label can do nearly as much work as the Sixth Circuit requires of it. The neighborhood is relevant, but it seems too much to say that slouching over the driver's seat in a high-crime neighborhood as a squad car approaches by itself creates reasonable suspicion that you're stealing the car. The Fourth Amendment requires more, I think.

Thanks to FourthAmendment.com for the link.

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