Author: Jim Chapman
In Hall v. City of Chicago, 953 F.3 945 (7th Cir. 2020), the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit was asked to decide matters of first impression regarding the proper scope of a Terry stop. The case arose when a group of Plaintiffs filed a civil rights lawsuit against the City of Chicago for violating their Fourth Amendment rights. The relevant facts are as follows.
For many years, the Chicago Police Department (“CPD”) used “contact cards” to document Terry stops and other interactions between police and citizens. Each contact card detailed personal information about the stopped individual, including his or her physical description, address, social security number, driver’s license number, and employer information. Between January 2010 and January 2016, the CPD documented over 3.3 million street encounters with citizens using contact cards and their successor form—Investigatory Stop Reports.
Roughly two-thirds of these contact cards included a notation like “name check clear,” “NCC,” or “N.C. Clear”—indicating that the officers completed a name check during the stop. When on the street, the officers performed a name check in one of two ways: (1) radioing a dispatcher at the Office of Emergency Management and Communications (“OEMC”); or (2) entering search criteria into a Portable Data Terminal (“PDT”) located in the officer’s vehicle. When an officer conducted a name check via a radio call, the officer read to the dispatcher the individual’s information. The dispatcher recorded that information and performed the inquiry on the officer’s behalf through his own terminal at OEMC. The amount of time that it took to obtain the results of a name check from an OEMC dispatcher varied if, for example, the dispatcher must first respond to higher priority radio traffic. To perform a name check from a police car, the officer typed the individual’s first and last name into a name inquiry screen on the PDT. When an officer searched in this manner, the results come back in a mere seconds later.
In their deposition testimony, several CPD officers testified that they (generally) would conduct a name check during an investigatory stop and that it was up to their discretion whether to do so. The officers testified that they typically asked for citizens’ identification cards during street encounters and that people usually waited for the officers to return their ID cards before leaving. The officers also attested that preventing the subject of a stop from running away motivated their practice of holding onto the ID.
Until November 2018, Chicago’s Aggressive Panhandling Ordinance prohibited certain behaviors while panhandling. The Ordinance made it unlawful for a panhandler to solicit a person at specified locations, such as within ten feet of a bus stop, on a public bus, in a restaurant, in a gas station, or within ten feet of an automatic teller machine. The Ordinance also prohibited touching a solicited person without his consent, blocking the path of a person entering a building or vehicle, following a solicited person, or panhandling in a group of two or more persons.
Plaintiffs in this case are residents of the City of Chicago who have each panhandled in the City. CPD officers stopped Plaintiffs numerous times and documented those stops with contact cards. These contact cards reflect that, in many of the stops, the officers performed name checks. Plaintiffs did not have a recollection of the specific details of these stops, and Plaintiffs descriptions of the stops varied when describing their duration and to what extent name checks caused a delay. Although no Plaintiff suggested that the officers used force or intimidation to obtain their IDs, Plaintiffs testified that they did not feel free to refuse the officers’ requests or free to leave before the officers returned their IDs to them. Finally, the officers completed some contact cards following interactions where they had observed one of the Plaintiffs violating the Aggressive Panhandling Ordinance.
Plaintiffs filed this federal civil rights suit against the City of Chicago and alleged that the unnecessary delays that result from blanket warrant checks unrelated to the reason justifying the stops constitute unreasonable seizures in violation of their Fourth Amendment. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois denied Plaintiffs’ motion and granted the City’s cross-motion for summary judgment. In doing so, the District Court held that, if the officers had a reasonable suspicion of an ordinance violation, they could permissibly detain an individual to investigate the possible violation. Therefore, the District Court concluded that there was no underlying Constitutional violation upon which Plaintiffs could succeed on their claim against the City, and the District Court dismissed Plaintiffs’ case. Plaintiffs, then, timely appealed.
The Seventh Circuit began its consideration of Plaintiffs’ appeal with a recitation of the law regarding searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment. The Seventh Circuit explained that, whenever a police officer accosts an individual and restrains his freedom to walk away, he has “seized’ that person for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, i.e., he has engaged in a Terry stop of that individual. The test for whether a seizure has occurred is an objective one. The test asks, considering the totality of the circumstances, would a reasonable person feel free to terminate the encounter. Circumstances that might indicate a seizure include: the threatening presence of several officers, display of their weapons, physical touching of the private citizen, use of forceful language or tone of voice (indicating that compliance with the officers’ request might be compelled), and the location in which the encounter takes place.
Therefore, the Seventh Circuit stated that merely asking for identification does not amount to a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. In fact, even when officers have no basis for suspecting a particular individual, the officers may generally ask questions of that individual and may ask to examine the individual’s identification as long as the police do not convey a message that compliance with their requests is required. Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit agreed with the District Court that the officers’ initial requests for identification from Plaintiffs in this case did not constitute seizures within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.
The Seventh Circuit then turned its attention to the “heart” of Plaintiffs’ claims, i.e., whether the time between Plaintiffs handing the officers their IDs and the officers returning their IDs to them was a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The Seventh Circuit explained that they key to this issue is “reasonableness.”
The Seventh Circuit began its discussion of the reasonableness issue by noting that that a seizure that is lawful at its inception can violate the Fourth Amendment if its manner of execution unreasonably infringes interests protected by the Constitution. In other words, a seizure that is initially justified can become unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete its mission.
Ultimately, the Seventh Circuit determined that that an officer’s completion of a warrant check during a street stop where the officer has reasonable suspicion of criminal activity is not per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Of course, that conclusion did not resolve the issue of a warrant check that lasted unreasonably long. In this case, the Seventh Circuit noted that most Plaintiffs testified that they estimated that their warrant checks typically delayed the stops by anywhere from four to seven minutes. The Seventh Circuit concluded that no reasonable jury could find that this length of delay was objectively unreasonable under these circumstances, particular when Plaintiffs were unable to recall any of the specifics of their alleged encounters with the police officers.
In short, the Seventh Circuit held: (1) the CPD officers’ routine requests for identification from panhandlers did not constitute seizures under the Fourth Amendment; (2) the CPD officers’ completion of an arrest warrant check during a Terry stop is not per se unreasonable under Fourth Amendment; and (3) the CPD officers could conduct arrest warrant checks of a reasonable duration on panhandlers incidental to a Terry stop without violating the Fourth Amendment.
In this case, Plaintiffs failed to establish that they suffered an underlying Constitutional violation during these Terry stops because the duration of the stops was reasonable. Because Plaintiffs failed to establish a violation of their Constitutional rights, the Seventh Circuit found that the City of Chicago was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s Order dismissing the case in the City of Chicago’s favor.