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Fifth Circuit: Fourth Amendment Seizure Occurred When Officer Pulled Behind Parked Vehicle, Activated Emergency Lights, and Simultaneously Ordered Suspect to Remain in Vehicle

by Douglas Ankney

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that a Fourth Amendment seizure occurred when an officer, with emergency lights activated, pulled in behind Jacob Boone Wright’s vehicle and almost simultaneously ordered him to remain in his car to which Wright sufficiently complied.

Officer Jakobsohn of the Corpus Christie Police Department in Texas received a call from dispatch that an anonymous caller had reported drug dealers and a suspicious vehicle in Glen Arbor Park near Tanglewood Drive and Bonner Drive. The caller identified the car as a gold Toyota Carolla. Jakobsohn located a gold Toyota Carolla parked on Bonner Drive across from the park. She pulled in behind the Toyota, activating her red and blue emergency lights. As she exited her vehicle, she saw the Toyota’s driver’s side door open, and she commanded the driver (later identified as Wright) three times to “stay in [his] car.”

Wright neither remained inside nor reentered his vehicle. However, when Jakobsohn ordered Wright to put his hands on his vehicle, he placed his keys on top of the car and turned towards it. Jakobsohn conducted a patdown of Wright and attempted to move him toward her patrol car, but he refused her command. Instead, he removed a key from his keychain and moved towards the Toyota’s driver’s side door. Jakobsohn moved him to the front of his vehicle and ordered him to put his hands behind his back – at which point, Wright began banging on the hood of his car, yelling repeatedly to the passenger in the Toyota to exit and lock it. Jakobsohn handcuffed Wright and arrested him for “resisting detention.” A search of the Toyota produced a pistol and illegal drugs.

Wright was indicted in December 2020 for possession of a firearm by a felon. Upon learning of the anonymous tip, Wright moved to suppress the evidence derived from an investigatory stop and seizure effected without reasonable suspicion in violation of the Fourth Amendment. At the suppression hearing, Wright contended the Terry stop [from Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968)] was initiated when Jakobsohn pulled in behind Wright’s vehicle. The Government argued the Terry stop didn’t occur until Jakobsohn made physical contact with Wright during the pat down.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas determined that the Terry stop did not occur when Jakobsohn pulled in behind Wright’s vehicle. Instead, the District Court stated Wright’s “taking the keys off the chain, not being willing to go back to the police officer’s car, [and] his communication with the passenger … allowed [Jakobsohn] to initiate the Terry stop.” The District Court denied the suppression motion, and Wright ultimately pleaded guilty conditioned upon his right to appeal the suppression ruling.

The Fifth Circuit observed “[w]hen, as here, a defendant shows he was seized absent a warrant, the Government bears the burden in showing reasonable suspicion existed in justifying the seizure.” United States v. Martinez, 486 F.3d 855 (5th Cir. 2007). “A ‘Terry stop’ is a ‘special category of Fourth Amendment seizures,’ in which an officer may briefly detain an individual for further investigation, if the officer has reasonable suspicion the individual is engaged in criminal activity.” Dunaway v. New York, 442 U.S. 200 (1979). The seizure must be “justified at its inception” requiring courts to first “determine when the seizure occurred.” United States v. Flowers, 6 F.4th 651 (5th Cir. 2021).

“A seizure occurs when an officer ‘objectively manifests an intent to restrain’ the liberty of an individual through either use of physical force or a show of authority.” Torres v. Madrid, 141 S. Ct. 989 (2021). “A police officer may make a seizure by a show of authority … but there is no seizure without actual submission; otherwise, there is at most and attempted seizure, so far as the Fourth Amendment is concerned.” Brendlin v. California,551 U.S. 249 (2007). When a seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes is claimed without the presence of physical force, courts are required to analyze the encounter using a two-step process: “whether the officer exerted a sufficient show of authority; and whether defendant submitted to it.” Carroll v. Ellington, 800 F.3d 154 (5th Cir. 2015).

Consequently, deciding the current appeal required the Court to determine when Jakobsohn exerted a sufficient show of authority and whether Wright submitted to it. “In determining whether an officer makes a sufficient show of authority, the court considers whether, in the light of ‘all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.’” United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544 (1980). In United States v. Morris,40 F.4th 323 (5th Cir. 2022), the court held that a stop occurred when officers “flagged down” the defendant’s vehicle.

But in the current case, the Government argued: “All agree that stopping one’s vehicle pursuant to a police command of a visual signal constitutes a seizure,” but because Wright’s vehicle was already stopped, he was not seized when Jakobsohn pulled in behind him.

However, the Court stated that the “principle underlying our court’s decision in Morris is not limited to actively moving vehicles.” Consequently, the Court reasoned “when the Officer quickly pulled up behind Wright’s vehicle, with emergency lights engaged, she was showing a sign of authority clearly communicating to Wright he was not free to leave. That Wright’s vehicle was parked at the time does not detract from the Officer’s show of authority. Moreover, the Officer almost simultaneously ordered Wright to remain in his vehicle; and ‘[u]nder the Fourth Amendment’s free to leave test, it is hard to conclude that a person ordered to a certain location by police would feel free to leave.’” Morris. Thus, the Court held that Wright was seized when Jakobsohn engaged the emergency lights and visually and orally communicated to him that he was not free to leave.

“Determining the time at which an individual submits to authority ‘depends on what a person was doing before the show of authority: a fleeing man is not seized until he is physically overpowered, but one sitting in a chair may submit to authority by not getting up to run away.’” Brendlin. Even though Wright did not comply with Jakobsohn’s command to remain in his vehicle, neither did he attempt to flee or lunge at Jakobsohn or make any threatening movements, the Court noted. He did not attempt to terminate the encounter. The Court concluded that Wright “sufficiently submitted to the show of authority because he objectively appeared to believe he was not free to leave, and he did not attempt to flee, nor terminate the encounter.”

Because the District Court had concluded that the Terry stop didn’t occur until Jakobsohn made physical contact with Wright, it did not make any findings of fact or conclusions of law regarding the existence or nonexistence of probable cause at the time Jakobsohn pulled in behind Wright’s vehicle, activated her emergency lights, and almost simultaneously ordered him to remain in his vehicle. “The Supreme Court has made clear that the initial reasonable suspicion determination should be made by the resident judge, that is, the trial court in the first instance, and the courts of appeal must give due weight to that court’s factual inferences.” United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266 (2002). However, because the suppression hearing provided the Government with opportunity to present evidence establishing reasonable suspicion, the Court would not give the Government a second opportunity on remand, instructing that the findings and conclusions must be based on the record already developed at the suppression hearing. United States v. Raney, 633 F.3d 385 (5th Cir. 2011).

Accordingly, the Court retained jurisdiction of the case but remanded to the District Court for the limited purpose of providing written findings of fact and conclusions of law on whether Jakobsohn had reasonable suspicion when she pulled in behind Wright’s vehicle and ordered him to remain in his vehicle. See: United States v. Wright, 57 F.4th 524 (5th Cir. 2023).

 

Editor’s note: Following the limited remand, the case returned to the Fifth Circuit. Based upon the District Court’s new findings, the Court ruled that the police had reasonable suspicion to seize Wright and lawfully obtained the incriminating evidence from his vehicle. Thus, the Court affirmed his judgment of conviction. See: United States v. Wright 74 F.4th 722 (5th Cir. 2023).   

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