What May an Officer Do When a Suspect Runs Onto the Scene of a Search?

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When law enforcement officers execute a search warrant authorizing the search of a private residence, they may detain, while the search is carried out, any occupant they discover on the premises. Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692 (1981). Officers do not need individualized suspicion that such a person is engaged in criminal activity justify his or her detention. The person’s mere presence on the premises subject to the search is sufficient to justify the seizure under this categorical rule. Muehler v. Mena, 544 U.S. 93 (2005).

If a person leaves the immediate vicinity of the premises just before officers execute the warrant, the person may not be detained based on the search warrant alone. Instead, any such detention must be supported by reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. Bailey v. United States, 568 U.S. 186 (2013).

But what about a person who approaches a house while a warrant is being executed? Is that person an occupant who may be detained without particularized suspicion? The North Carolina Supreme Court recently considered that question in State v. Wilson, ___ N.C. ___, 821 S.E.2d 811 (2018).

Facts. Law enforcement officers were securing a house in Winston-Salem in order to execute a search warrant when Terry Wilson walked onto the property saying that he was there to retrieve his moped. Uniformed officers clad in Kevlar vests and ballistic helmets were stationed at the end of the driveway and other places at the property’s perimeter to keep others from entering the area while the search was ongoing. Wilson walked past one of these officers, and, as he neared the house, was approached by another. The second officer noticed that something in the right pocket of Wilson’s sweatpants was weighing it down. The officer thought the object was a firearm. He stopped Wilson and asked whether Wilson was armed. Wilson said he was not. The officer then told Wilson he was going to frisk him for weapons and instructed him to turn around. When Wilson did so, the officer saw the grip of a handgun protruding from Wilson’s pocket. He seized the gun and detained Wilson, who ultimately was charged with possession of a firearm by a felon.

Procedural history. Wilson moved to suppress evidence of the handgun, arguing that it was discovered when he was searched without reasonable suspicion. The trial court denied the motion on the basis that defendant’s entry onto the premises “where SWAT operations were ongoing is behavior that a reasonable and prudent police officer would find unusual” and that the officer who stopped Wilson “had a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the Defendant might have been armed and presently dangerous.” Wilson pled guilty, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress, and appealed. The court of appeals reversed the trial court, reasoning that the trial court failed to find that the officer who recovered the handgun from Wilson’s pocket had reasonable suspicion that Wilson was engaged in criminal conduct or to make factual determinations that would support such a conclusion. State v. Wilson, No. COA16-1212, ___ N.C. App. ___, 803 S.E.2d 698 (Aug. 15, 2017) (unpublished).

The State petitioned the North Carolina Supreme Court for review, arguing that the court of appeals’ reliance on the individualized suspicion standard was inconsistent with the United States Supreme Court’s determination in Summers that officers executing a search warrant may detain the occupants of the premises while a search is conducted. The state supreme court granted review, and reversed the court of appeals.

Searches and seizures, or seizures and searches. The issue considered by the appellate courts in Wilson differed somewhat from that addressed in the trial court’s order, which considered only whether the gun should be suppressed as the fruit of an unlawful search. Because the gun was discovered pursuant to a warrantless search that followed Wilson’s initial seizure, the state supreme court first considered whether the officer lawfully stopped Wilson before searching his person.

Holding. The North Carolina Supreme Court held that the categorical rule in Summers justified the seizure of Wilson who would have become an occupant of the premises had he not been detained and who “posed a real threat to the safe and efficient completion of the search.” Slip op. at 3. The court also held that the seizure and search of Wilson were supported by individualized suspicion as it was reasonable for the officer, who noticed a heavy object the size, shape and apparent weight of a gun in Wilson’s pocket, to suspect that Wilson had entered the property to violently interfere with the execution of the search warrant. Thus, the state supreme court determined that the trial court appropriately denied Wilson’s motion to suppress.

Analysis. Summers and its progeny, Muehler and Bailey, establish that a search warrant carries with it the limited authority to detain occupants within the immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched who are present during the execution of a search warrant. There are three rationales for this authority: officer safety, facilitating the completion of the search, and preventing flight. The Wilson court thought it evident that Wilson was in the immediate vicinity of the house while the search warrant was being executed. It thus focused its analysis on whether Wilson was an occupant for purposes of the Summers rule.

When the United States Supreme Court in Bailey declined to extend the Summers rule to authorize the suspicionless detention of a resident stopped a mile from his home while a search warrant was being executed, it explained that “a spatial or geographical boundary can be used to determine the area within which both the search and detention incident to that search may occur.” 568 U.S. at 201. The Court reasoned that by “[l]imiting the rule in Summers to the area in which an occupant poses a real threat to the safe and efficient execution of a search warrant,” it could ensure “that the scope of the detention incident to a search is confined to its underlying justification.” Id. Thus, Bailey held that the authority to detain under Summers was confined to the immediate vicinity of the premises to be searched pursuant to the warrant. Id.

Wilson viewed the definition of an occupant as being subject to a similar limitation, reasoning that a person is an occupant if he or she “‘poses a real threat to the safe and efficient execution of a search warrant.’” Slip op. at 9 (quoting Bailey, 568 U.S. at 201). The court then concluded that Wilson met this standard as he “approached the house being swept, announced his intent to retrieve his moped . . . and appeared to be armed.” Thus, the court determined that Wilson was lawfully detained pursuant to Summers. Then, as previously mentioned, the court went on to determine that the seizure and search of Wilson also were supported by reasonable suspicion.

Concurrences. Justice Hudson issued a concurring opinion (joined by Justice Beasley and Morgan), agreeing with the majority that Wilson’s detention and the ensuing search were justified based on reasonable suspicion, but disagreeing with the majority’s application of Summers on the basis that the State failed to raise the Summers issue before the trial court. Justice Beasley wrote a separate concurrence to express her view that the Summers rule should not be extended to justify the search of Wilson. She criticized the majority’s definition of occupant as being overly broad and vague and said it was not clear how an officer executing a search warrant might differentiate a person posing a real threat from a curious onlooker. She explained that because a person’s attempt to bypass a police perimeter “likely justifies a Terry stop,” applying the Summers rule did not add additional protection to officers in the field, but did “dramatically expand[] the government’s power over individuals.” Slip op. at 4 (Beasley, J., concurring in result).

3 comments on “What May an Officer Do When a Suspect Runs Onto the Scene of a Search?

  1. The Supreme Court was pretty clear in Bailey when Justice Kennedy wrote, “If Bailey had rushed back to his apartment, the police could have apprehended and detained him under Summers.”

  2. I find it interesting that none of the courts mentioned NC GS 15A-255. It is clear that Wilson was present while the search warrant was still being executed. The timing of his arrival is immaterial to the application of this statute which has been ruled Constitutional several times by NC appellate courts. I certainly understand the importance and reliance on Terry, Summers, and Bailey, but to completely ignore 15A-255 being that it has been ruled lawful several times by our courts is just very perplexing.

    Under N.C. Gen.Stat. § 15A–255, “[a]n officer executing a warrant directing a search of premises or of a vehicle may, if the officer reasonably believes that his safety or the safety of others then present so requires, search for any dangerous weapons by an external patting of the clothing of those present.” (emphasis added) See State v. Jones, 97 N.C.App. 189, 196, 388 S.E.2d 213, 217 (1990) (noting that “[a]n officer executing a search warrant is authorized by statute to detain persons present on the premises, G.S. 15A–256, and to frisk those present for weapons if he reasonably believes that there is a threat to the safety of himself or others. G.S. 15A–255. These provisions are clearly designed to enable officers to ensure their safety and to prevent possible suspects from fleeing or destroying evidence. See State v. Watlington, 30 N.C.App. 101, 226 S.E.2d 186, disc. rev. denied and appeal dismissed, 290 N.C. 666, 228 S.E.2d 457 (1976). The NC Court of Appeals has further stated that “[t]he purpose of the officer’s frisk or pat-down is for the officer’s safety; as such, the pat-down is limited to the person’s outer clothing and to the search for weapons that may be used against the officer.” State v. Robinson, 189 N.C.App. 454, 458, 658 S.E.2d 501, 504 (2008)

    In State v Richmond (2011) COA10–1296, the NC Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s determination that the investigator had a right to frisk the defendant for weapons for officer safety when he was located in a private residence which was the subject of a search warrant for illegal drugs under 15A-255. Investigator Dunkley in response to the State’s question “Why are you concerned about officer safety on a search warrant like this?” explained that it was his experience as a narcotics officer that, “Where there’s drugs, there’s guns[.]” As there was no conflict in the evidence and the evidence shows that Investigator Dunkley reasonably believed that for his safety he should perform a pat down of defendant, see N.C. Gen.Stat. § 15A–255, Robinson, 189 N.C.App. at 458, 658 S.E.2d at 504, we find no merit in defendant’s argument.

    The Court of Appeals decision in the Wilson case is just mind-numbing.

    • The Court of Appeals made the right call limited by what was in front of them. Their job was to determine if the trial judge made the right call based on the evidence in the record. The trial judge found that the stop was lawful not based on NC statute 15A-255 but based on the Terry case. The trial court found that it was unusual for defendant to walk onto the search area and that defendant had a bulge in his pocket which could have been (and was) a gun, The trial court decided that those two circumstances were enough for a Terry stop and frisk. The CoA found that those two circumstances were insufficient as evidence of criminal activity being afoot and also insufficient as evidence that defendant was both armed and was dangerous, therefore insufficient for a Terry stop.

      What is mind-numbing is that Courts and lawyers ignore the plain language of Terry concerning an officer safety stop and frisk: there must be evidence that defendant is “armed and presently dangerous” (Terry, 392 US 1, 30-31). In Terry the Court did not say “armed and THEREFORE presently dangerous.” Merely being armed does not automatically mean being “presently dangerous.” The two are separate, according to the Terry case. The defendant in the Wilson case said he was retrieving his moped, which most likely was outside of the house. Moped retrieval while armed does not equal “presently dangerous.” Had defendant pulled the gun out of his pants and said “I’m getting my moped,” then we’d have a different situation.

      Whether 15A-255 allowed the stop was not a question in front of the Court. (Even if it had been, if the stop and frisk was constitutionally unlawful the stop and frisk could not be saved by a statute. A statute can be lawful under some circumstances and unlawful under others without being declared unconstitutional.)

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