Seizure by Blocking One’s Path

The line between a consensual encounter and a seizure can be blurry. Generally, there is no seizure when an officer simply approaches a person and asks the person a question. But there is a seizure when an officer approaches a person with a show of authority that would make a reasonable person feel that he or she was not free to leave. The court of appeals just decided an interesting case in this area – one that makes an interesting contrast with another relatively recent case.

Facts of Knudsen. This week’s case is State v. Knudsen. It arose when two Winston-Salem officers, on patrol downtown at 11:00 p.m. on a summer night, noticed the defendant get into, and start, a car “while holding a cup that looked similar to cups that were commonly used at downtown bars to serve mixed drinks.” One of the officers rode past the car on his bicycle and peered in the window. The defendant and his companion subsequently exited the vehicle and began to walk down the sidewalk, with the defendant still carrying the cup.

The bicycle officer positioned himself on the sidewalk in the pedestrians’ path, and the other officer, who was driving a cruiser, pulled into a parking lot just behind the bicycle officer in such a way as to block access to the lot. As the defendant approached the bicycle officer, the latter asked “what do you have in the cup?” Water, said the defendant, and indeed, water it was.

Lower court proceedings. The court’s opinion doesn’t describe what happened next, but I assume that the interaction developed in a way that gave the officers probable cause to believe that the defendant was impaired, as the defendant was eventually charged with driving while impaired. The defendant pled guilty to that offense in district court, appealed, and in superior court filed a “Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Reasonable Suspicion.”

The superior court judge granted the motion, ruling (1) that the defendant was seized when the officers blocked the defendant’s normal path of pedestrian travel in a way that would have made a reasonable person feel that he was not free to go, and (2) that the officers lacked reasonable suspicion for the stop.

Ruling on appeal. The State appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed. The key part of the opinion is the ruling that the officers seized the defendant. The court noted that the two officers were armed and in uniform, and took an obvious interest in the defendant. Then, the bicycle officer “imped[ed] Defendant’s continued movement along the sidewalk,” and the officer in the cruiser also “blocked the sidewalk” before the first officer “demanded” that the defendant state what he had in his cup. The court concluded that a reasonable person would not feel free to leave under these circumstances.

Comparison with Isenhour. As an empirical matter, I imagine that most people would feel obliged to stop in the circumstances present in Knudsen. But the same could probably be said of the earlier case of State v. Isenhour, 194 N.C. App. 539 (2008). In that case, the defendant was sitting in his car, with another person, in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant. Two officers “pulled up to defendant’s car in a marked patrol car. The officers parked their patrol car approximately eight feet away from defendant’s car,” then approached either side of the defendant’s vehicle on foot. They were in uniform and armed, and asked the defendant first to roll down his window, and later to exit his car. The court of appeals ruled that this did not constitute a seizure as a reasonable person would have felt free to ignore the officers and walk, or drive, away.

Perhaps Knudsen and Isenhour can be reconciled based on the fact that the officers in Knudsen blocked the defendant’s path, while the officers in Isenhour did not block the egress of the defendant’s vehicle. But having an officer at both doors of one’s car, as in Isenhour, seems to me as great a constraint as the defendant in Knudsen faced. My own view is that this difficult and fact-intensive area of the law simply generates decisions that aren’t entirely consistent.

One more comparison. As a final note, Knudsen is also somewhat reminiscent of the situation where an officer activates his or her blue lights and pulls in immediately behind a pedestrian. Is that a show of authority that would make a reasonable person feel not free to leave? I tend to think so but noted a split of authority on the issue in this prior post.