A FEDERAL DISTRICT COURT HOLDS THAT THE POLICE DID NOT VIOLATE THE DEFENDANT’S FOURTH AMENDMENT RIGHTS DURING A STOP AND FRISK SEARCH
By Jim Chapman, Attorney, Public Agency Training Council
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In United States v. Williams, ___ F.Supp.3d ___ 2016 WL 6083965 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 18, 2016), a federal district court in New York was asked to determine whether police officers violated Defendant Curtis Williams’ Fourth Amendment rights during a “stop and frisk” search of his person. The relevant facts are as follows.
On the evening of March 29, 2016, Defendant Curtis Williams was arrested for trespass and possession of a controlled substance following an encounter with officers of the New York City Police Department. That evening, Officer Dilma Marte, Sergeant Frank Bohr, and Lieutenant Christopher LaGrasta had been conducting a routine patrol. Officers Marte and LaGrasta were in uniform; Sergeant Bohr wore plainclothes. During their patrol, the officers encountered Williams exiting an apartment building. Both Sergeant Bohr and Officer Marte were familiar with Williams as a result of having conducted numerous patrols in the area. Based on prior interactions with Williams, including prior arrests, they believed that he did not live in the building. In the past, Officer Marte had observed Williams frequently entering and exiting another building. Officer Marte believed this second building to be his place of residence.
Officer Marte approached Williams as he was exiting the building. When she asked what he had been doing in the building, he responded that he lived in Apartment 5-C in that building. When she asked if Williams had identification, Williams responded that he did not. When Officer Marte asked Williams if anyone in unit 5-C would confirm that he lived there, he remained silent. Based on this interaction, Officer Marte concluded that Williams was not telling the truth. She then directed Williams to place his hands on the police vehicle. At this time, Officer Marte patted Williams down to search for weapons. Officer Marte uncovered no contraband during her initial frisk but concluded that Williams was in violation of New York State trespass law. Had Williams possessed any identification, Officer Marte could have simply issued him a summons. However, because Williams had no identification, the officers could not verify his information on the spot. Officer Marte testified at the evidentiary hearing following Williams’ motion to suppress that the officers were, thus, obligated to take Williams back to the Precinct in order to issue him a summons for trespassing.
Officer Madden arrived at the scene shortly after this exchange between Williams and Officer Marte. Officer Madden immediately learned that Williams had been questioned on suspicion of trespass and that Williams possessed no identification. Officer Madden had also been informed earlier that day from a confidential source that Williams had been selling crack cocaine in the area. This source had provided the NYPD with information about Williams in the past, and Officer Madden knew this source to be reliable.
Officer Madden had also interacted with Williams on previous occasions, including assisting in a previous arrest of Williams. In addition to his own interactions with Williams, Officer Madden, along with Officer Marte and Sergeant Bohr, knew that a search warrant had been executed at Apartment 5-C a few months earlier. During that search of Apartment 5-C, the police seized narcotics and multiple firearms. In executing the warrant, the police also came to know who resided in Apartment 5-C, and Williams was not one of its residents.
Equipped with this information, Officer Madden questioned Williams further. Williams reiterated that he lived in Apartment 5-C but that he could not produce identification. Believing Williams’ statements to be false, Officer Madden shared Officer Marte’s suspicion that Williams had been trespassing. Officer Madden, then, proceeded to frisk Williams. In patting down Williams’ front pants pocket, Officer Madden felt an abnormally-shaped object. Officer Madden asked Williams what he had in his front pocket, and Williams responded that he was carrying “work,” which the officer knew to mean drugs. Officer Madden then arrested Williams and drove him back to the Precinct. Officer Madden seized several small bags of crack cocaine from Williams’ person upon arrival at the Precinct.
After arresting Williams, Officer Madden questioned the residents of Apartment 5-C about whether Williams lived in the unit. One resident indicated that, although Williams did not live in the building, he did permit Williams to use the shower in Apartment 5-C from time to time. Williams did not offer this information at the time of his arrest. The resident of Apartment 5-C told Officer Madden that he had seen Williams “earlier that day or the day before” but that Williams had not been in Apartment 5-C near the time of his arrest. The resident could not recall precisely when he had last seen Williams.
Thereafter, Williams was charged with conspiracy to possess and to distribute crack cocaine in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 846 and § 841(a)(1). Williams was also charged with brandishing a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking and also charged with prostitution-related offenses. Williams filed a motion asking the District Court to suppress the evidence of the crack cocaine seized from him on the night of his arrest. Williams argued that the officers who stopped him did so in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights as outlined in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). Specifically, Williams argued that the officers did not have a reasonable suspicion to suspect him of trespass when he was twice frisked, first by Officer Marte and, then, by Officer Madden.
After conducting an evidentiary hearing, the District Court began its analysis of Williams’ motion to suppress by noting that warrantless searches and seizures are “per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment-subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.” Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 356 (1967). Generally, police may conduct a warrantless seizure only when they have a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is occurring or imminent. While reasonable suspicion is a less demanding standard than probable cause and requires a showing considerably less than preponderance of the evidence, the Fourth Amendment requires at least a minimal level of objective justification for making the stop. The precise combination and strength of evidence necessary to amount to reasonable suspicion is very fact-based. Reasonable suspicion requires more than an “inarticulate hunch,” Terry, 392 U.S. at 22, and “[a]n 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.” Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 124 (1979).
To have reasonable suspicion, the officer must be able to point to “specific and articulable facts which reasonably warrant the intrusion on a citizen’s liberty interest.” United States v. Elmore, 482 F.3d 172, 178-79 (2d Cir. 2007). A trespass-related Terry stop must be predicated on specific facts that objectively indicate that an individual might be trespassing. Although that information must be objectively indicative of criminal activity, a police officer is allowed to make inferences that an ordinary person could not; he is entitled to draw on his own experience and specialized training to make deductions that might well elude the average person. Once an officer has conducted a valid Terry stop, he is permitted to search the subject if he has “reason to believe that he is dealing with an armed and dangerous individual.” Terry, 392 U.S. at 27. Officers are permitted to conduct these searches for the limited purpose of their own protection and safety. The officer need not be certain that the individual is carrying a weapon; a reasonable belief that the subject may be armed is justification enough for a frisk.
In this case, the District Court held that the officers had a reasonable suspicion that Williams had violated New York’s trespass law. Therefore, the Court denied Williams’ motion to suppress.
The District Court explained that an individual who is merely observed exiting or entering and exiting a frequently-patrolled building does not establish reasonable suspicion of trespass, even if the building is located in a high crime area, and regardless of the time of day. In addition, when a stopped individual immediately communicates a legitimate reason for being in the building (and the police have no cause to question the veracity of the individual’s statement), no reasonable suspicion exists.
However, the District Court stated that three key pieces of evidence lead to the conclusion that the officers had a valid trespass stop and search of Williams. First, the officers had reliable knowledge that Williams did not live at the apartment building in question. Second, the officers had reliable knowledge that Williams was engaged in the sale of illegal drugs on the day of his arrest. This knowledge was based upon information that the police had received from a reliable witness regarding Williams’ drug trafficking activities. Third, Williams was not truthful in his first interaction with the police. Specifically, Williams repeatedly told Officer Marte that he lived in Apartment 5-C, but when asked if the residents of Apartment 5-C would verify that he lived there, Williams remained silent. The District Court held that, given this behavior, it was proper for the officers to be suspicious that Williams was trespassing.
Finally, the District Court noted that, although the officers were not certain that Williams was armed and dangerous, they did have a reasonable suspicion that he might have been carrying a weapon. Officers knew that Williams was in the drug trade; they knew that he had been coming from an apartment known to be used in the drug trade; and they knew that drugs and guns had been recovered from the apartment just a few months before Williams’ arrest. Because a determination that reasonable suspicion exists need not rule out the possibility of innocent conduct, the District Court found that the officers possessed reasonable suspicion to stop and frisk Williams on both occasions, and therefore, the District Court denied his motion to suppress. In short, the District Court explained: “In assessing whether the police conducted a proper Terry stop, what matters is whether the officers formed a reasonable, good faith opinion at the time of the stop that there was likely criminal activity; not whether they were certainly or ultimately correct.” Williams, 2016 WL 6083965, at * 5.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.