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December 3, 2015
  United States v. Slocumb -- Fourth Circuit
Just a Hunch: Fourth Circuit Vacates Conviction of Virginia Man in the Wrong Place, at the Wrong Time, for the Right Reasons

Areas of Law: Constitutional Law, Criminal Procedure

Issue Presented: Whether Culpeper, Virginia police obtained evidence and statements from the appellant in violation of the Fourth Amendment when they detained and arrested him after encountering him around midnight in the parking lot of a closed commercial business located in a known drug-trafficking area, then searched a car he had borrowed after his girlfriend, who was also present, consented to its search?

Brief Summary: In a published opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed, vacated, and remanded Andre Slocumb's case for further proceedings because the court concluded the Culpeper police did not have reasonable suspicion to detain him. In reaching its conclusion, the court found the Culpeper police had not articulated reasons why Slocumb's presence in the business's parking lot after hours, his behavior, and reason for being there - his girlfriend's car had broken down - added up to suspicion of criminal activity.

Extended Summary: On March 18, 2013, the Culpeper Police Department was preparing to execute a drug warrant on a target house. As part of its operation, the police used the parking lot of a salvage yard located across the street from the target house. The police arrived at the salvage yard around midnight, after the business was closed. Upon their arrival they encountered the appellant, Andre Slocumb, and his girlfriend, Sierra Lewis, with a baby. Slocumb and Lewis were in the process of transferring a car seat from a Cadillac to a Honda. One of the police officers, Lieutenant Timothy Chilton, approached the couple to inquire why they were in the salvage yard's parking lot. Slocumb explained that his girlfriend's car had broken down and he had come to pick her up. Although their conversation lasted less than a minute, Chilton thought Slocumb was "acting evasively" because he did not make eye contact and mumbled his answers to the officer's questions. Chilton then called Officer Grant over to stay with Slocumb and Lewis while he went to help the other officers execute the search warrant. Slocumb overheard Chilton tell Grant that he and Lewis "were not allowed to leave."

While waiting for Chilton to return, Slocumb told Grant he was in the salvage yard's parking lot to help his girlfriend whose car had broken down, and that he had borrowed his landlord's car, the Honda, to come pick her up. The explanation Slocumb gave Grant was consistent with what he told Chilton. Grant asked Slocumb for identification; he did not have any, but he told the officer his name was "Anthony Francis." Grant ran the name through dispatch, which returned a person with the same name whose description matched Slocumb's physical appearance. Grant asked Slocumb whether he was carrying anything illegal; Slocumb said no. Grant then asked Slocumb for consent to search him; Slocumb declined to consent to a search. Grant also explained why he and the other officers were in the area and asked Slocumb if he was aware of drug trafficking in the area; Grant thought that Slocumb became increasingly nervous over the course of questioning.

After about ten minutes, Chilton returned and Grant reported to him that Slocumb had given the name "Anthony Francis," which was consistent with the information Grant had received from dispatch. Chilton asked Slocumb additional questions regarding his identity to which he thought Slocumb provided inconsistent responses. Grant then asked Lewis for Slocumb's name, which she said was "Hakeem." Chilton and Grant recognized the name as that of an individual who was under investigation for drug trafficking. The officers then placed Slocumb under arrest for providing a false name and searched him. The search revealed almost $6,000.

After Chilton and Grant searched Slocumb, Officer Richard McKnight, who had helped execute the search warrant on the target house, came over to the salvage yard parking lot. McKnight questioned Lewis about Slocumb and asked her for consent to search the Honda; she consented. Upon searching the car, the police found methamphetamine, cocaine powder, and cocaine base under the passenger's seat. They also found Slocumb's landlord's purse, which contained a small amount of marijuana, in the trunk. Slocumb admitted the drugs were his, and the police took him to a magistrate's office where he made additional incriminating statements. Based on Slocumb's statements, the police obtained a warrant to search Slocumb's house. Their search uncovered marijuana smoking devices, a small amount of white powder, and other items.

Prior to trial, Slocumb filed a motion to suppress evidence and statements he made to the police. The district court denied Slocumb's motion, finding that the officers had reasonable suspicion to detain him and probable cause to arrest him. The district court also concluded that Lewis had apparent authority to consent to the search of the Honda. Slocumb pleaded guilty, but retained his ability to appeal the motion to suppress.

On appeal, Slocumb first argued that Chilton did not have reasonable suspicion to detain him. Because the parties agreed that Slocumb had been "seized," the court began its analysis by examining the totality of the circumstances to determine whether Chilton had reasonable suspicion to detain Slocumb. The Fourth Circuit examined the factors the district court considered when it denied Slocumb's motion to suppress: (1) the area around the salvage yard was a high-crime area; (2) it was after midnight; (3) Slocumb was in the parking lot of a business that had closed several hours earlier; (4) Slocumb's "evasive" behavior; and (5) that Slocumb's behavior was "inconsistent" with his explanation for why he was in the salvage yard parking lot. The court considered the first three factors together and noted that they support a finding of reasonable suspicion in general, but not as to a specific person. Next, the court considered Slocumb's behavior. Although the district court found that Slocumb had acted evasively because most people in Slocumb's situation would have welcomed a police officer, the Fourth Circuit rejected this rationale. The court found the fact that Slocumb did not attempt to flee or even leave the area weighed against finding reasonable suspicion because in other cases much more evasive behavior, such as walking away at a fast pace, did not support a finding of reasonable suspicion. Moreover, in cases where a defendant did not flee the scene, the Fourth Circuit has required more extreme signs of nervousness to find reasonable suspicion. Slocumb's mumbled responses, avoiding eye contact, and seemingly hurrying Lewis did not rise to the level of nervousness required to find reasonable suspicion. In concluding its analysis, the court noted that Chilton's suspicions should have been dispelled when Slocumb gave answers to Chilton's questions that were consistent with his actions.

The court rounded out its analysis with a reminder that the government cannot simply list factors and label them as suspicious; it must explain why those factors are indicative of criminal activity and therefore should support a finding of reasonable suspicion. The court did not reach Slocumb's probable cause and consent claims because it concluded that the police did not have reasonable suspicion to detain him.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here.

Panel: Judges Gregory, Agee, and Diaz

Argument Date: 9/16/2015

Date of Issued Opinion: 10/22/2015

Docket Number: Case No. 14-4733

Decided: Reversed, vacated, and remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Monica Basche, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: Andrea Lantz Harris, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Charlottesville, Virginia, for Appellant. Jean Barrett Hudson, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charlottesville, Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Larry W. Shelton, Federal Public Defender, Christine Madeleine Lee, Research and Writing Attorney, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Roanoke, Virginia, for Appellant. Timothy J. Heaphy, United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Roanoke, Virginia, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Judge Gregory

Case Alert Supervisor:
Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 12/03/2015 10:59 AM     4th Circuit  

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