Understanding Whether a Seizure Occurs When an Officer’s Vehicle Blocks Another Vehicle

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In California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621 (1991), the United States Supreme Court reformulated the definition of a seizure of a person under the Fourth Amendment. This post discusses this case and its application to a particular issue: whether an officer’s blocking another vehicle with the officer’s vehicle is a seizure of the vehicle occupants.

Facts and issues in Hodari D. A group of youths, including the defendant, fled at the approach of an unmarked police car with two officers inside. One of the officers, who was dressed in street clothes but was wearing a jacket with the word “Police” embossed on both front and back, left the car and chased them. Eventually, the officer and the defendant were face-to-face running toward each other. The defendant tossed away what appeared to be a small rock (which later was determined to be rock cocaine), and then the officer tackled him.

Because the State of California conceded before the United States Supreme Court that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to make an investigative stop until after the defendant tossed the rock cocaine, the Court was required to determine when Hodari D. was seized. If he was seized before the cocaine was tossed, its discovery was the fruit of the poisonous tree (the illegal seizure) and inadmissible at trial. If the cocaine was tossed before Hodari D. was seized, its discovery, seizure, and admission at trial would be justified as abandoned property not subject to the Fourth Amendment.

Ruling. The Court ruled that the officer did not seize the defendant under the Fourth Amendment until he tackled him. The Court ruled that a seizure of a person occurs only when (1) an officer has applied actual physical force to the person (for example, touching or tackling), or (2) absent physical force, the defendant submits to an officer’s “show of authority.” While the Court’s definition of seizure in prior cases had been that a person is seized if, in view of all the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he or she was not free to leave, in Hodari D. it clarified that definition by stating that facts satisfying the definition do not establish that a seizure occurs when a person simply interacts with an officer’s show of authority. For example, the Court noted that a seizure does not occur when an officer shouts, “Stop, in the name of the law,” and the person continues to flee. To constitute a seizure, there must be, in addition, a submission to the officer’s show of authority—for example, the person stops as a result of the officer’s command. The Court concluded in this case that the defendant had not been seized when he tossed the rock cocaine, because the officer did not apply physical force until he tackled the defendant, and the defendant did not submit to a show of authority until he was tackled (the Court assumed, without deciding, that an officer chasing a suspect is a show of authority).

Officers Who Block Another Vehicle With Their Vehicle. I don’t believe a North Carolina appellate case has decided a post-Hodari D. seizure issue in which officers completely blocked another vehicle with their vehicle so it could not leave. In State v. Isenhour, 194 N.C. App. 539 (2008), officers parked their patrol car eight feet away from another vehicle in which the defendant and another passenger were seated, but it did not prevent that vehicle from driving away. The court ruled based on that fact and other circumstances, the officers did not seize the defendant under the Fourth Amendment and thus did not need reasonable suspicion to approach the defendant’s vehicle.

Fortunately, a recent Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals provides an insight into how an appellate court would analyze this issue. In United States v. Stover, 808 F.3d 991 (4th Cir. Dec. 18, 2015). The defendant was convicted in a Maryland federal district court of possession of a firearm as a felon. The district court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence, and the fourth circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling. It held that the defendant was not seized under California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621 (1991), when the officers’ vehicle blocked the defendant’s parked vehicle, because the defendant thereafter left his vehicle, walked away from the officers to the front of his vehicle despite an officer’s command to return to his vehicle. He did not submit until an officer later pointed a gun at him.

In the early morning hours of March 13, 2013, two county police officers in Maryland were patrolling an area where several violent robberies had recently occurred. They saw a vehicle double-parked in an apartment building’s private parking lot. A man was in the driver’s seat and a woman in the front passenger seat. The officers decided to return a few minutes later to check on the vehicle. When they did, the vehicle and its occupants were still there. Because of the vehicle’s out-of-state plates, the area’s high-crime reputation, the late hour, and the double-parking, the officers concluded they had the right to stop and to see what was going on. They pulled their vehicle into the lot and parked at a 45-degree angle about three feet behind the vehicle, blocking it in. They activated their vehicle’s emergency lights, and officer A illuminated the driver’s side of the parked vehicle with a spotlight. The district court found as facts that thereafter the defendant got out of the car, opened the backside driver’s side door, and walked away from the officers to the front of the car. One of the officers told him to get back in the car when he saw the defendant move to the front of the car and drop a gun. When he did not get back, the officer ran to the defendant with his gun out and pointed it at the defendant’s face. Only then did the defendant get back in his vehicle.

The government did not argue that the officers had reasonable suspicion to block the defendant’s vehicle with their vehicle. Instead, it argued that a seizure did not occur under California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621 (1991), because the defendant did not submit to the officers’ show of authority when they blocked the car and activated emergency lights. The court indicated that if the defendant had simply remained seated in his car, he would have passively acquiesced to the show of authority and a seizure would have occurred then. Instead the defendant left his vehicle with a gun in his hand, despite a command to get back in his vehicle, and was not seized until after he dropped the gun, which was abandoned under the Fourth Amendment.

Application of Hodari D. to other Fourth Amendment issues. Hodari D. has been applied in later U.S. Supreme Court and North Carolina appellate court cases to decide whether a seizure of a person has occurred, including:

  • Whether and when a seizure occurred during a high speed chase or pursuit: County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833 (1998) (no seizure occurred when during high-speed pursuit person fell off motorcycle being pursued by officer); State v. Leach, 166 N.C. App. 711 (2004) (when surrounded by officers’ vehicles, defendant immediately took off in his vehicle; no seizure occurred until officers restrained him after a chase);
  • A person’s actions in response to an officer’s request or encounter, or flight from an officer: State v. Eaton, 210 N.C. App. 142 (2011) (upon officer’s request to come back, defendant stopped, turned, and discarded baggie before complying; no seizure occurred); State v. Mewborn, 200 N.C. App. 731 (2009) (defendant did not submit to officers’ show of authority before fleeing from them and was not seized until officers took physical control of him); State v. West, 119 N.C. App. 562 (1995) (no physical application of force or submission to show of authority before defendant ran from officers); State v. Taylor, 117 N.C. App. 644 (1995) (defendant was not seized until after he dropped item on ground because he had not yielded to show of authority); and
  • Whether an officer’s use of blue lights or take down lights constituted a seizure of a person: State v. Icard, 363 N.C. 303 (2009) (citing post-Hodari D.S. Supreme Court case, court finds seizure of defendant occurred when officers used blue lights and take-down lights and additional factors supported seizure); State v. Atwater, ___ N.C. App. ___, 723 S.E.2d 582 (2012) (unpublished) (activation of blue lights was not a seizure until defendant stopped vehicle); State v. Hiatt, 184 N.C. App. 190 (2007) (unpublished) (seizure occurred when blue lights were activated and defendant stopped vehicle).

You may read summaries of most of these cases on pages 134-39 in Arrest, Search, and Investigation in North Carolina (4th ed. 2011).

Advice to officers. Officers need to assess the facts to determine if they have reasonable suspicion to stop a person. If they are confident in their determination that reasonable suspicion exists, then stopping the person, whether inside or outside of a vehicle, will generally be justified. If officers know they do not have reasonable suspicion or are unsure, they need to assess the situation to determine what interactions would not constitute a seizure. For example, officers generally do not seize people merely by approaching them on the street or in other public places and asking questions of them. United States v. Drayton, 536 U.S. 194 (2002). Of course, if facts develop during an interaction that constitute reasonable suspicion, then the authority to seize a suspect would be justified.

2 comments on “Understanding Whether a Seizure Occurs When an Officer’s Vehicle Blocks Another Vehicle

  1. I have had a question since I read of the Maryland decision.

    If this situation occurred in North Carolina, in a city that had a code against double parking, would the officer have legal authority to detain the occupants of the car to investigate/cite for the illegal parking, making the whole decision of seizure/non seizure in the Maryland case a non-issue?

  2. Under G.S. 14-4(b), a parking violation is an infraction. Under G.S. 15A-1113(b), an officer who has probable cause that a person has committed an infraction may detain the person for a reasonable period to issue and serve a citation. Whether blocking the person’s vehicle is a reasonable exercise of this detention authority is subject to a case-by-case determination.

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