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Fifth Circuit: District Court Erred in Finding That a Fourth Amendment Stop Did Not Occur

by Harold Hempstead

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana erred in finding that a Fourth Amendment stop did not occur when “deputies flagged down [Neguel A.] Morris’s car, or when they ordered him to get out [of his vehicle], and [when they] told him that his release depended on his cooperation.”

In August 2018, while Morris was driving from Texas to the East Coast with a kilogram of heroin in his car, he pulled into a truck stop casino outside Lake Charles, Louisiana, parked behind the truck stop in a dark spot amongst “several large trucks and went to sleep in his car.”

Morris noticed two Calcasieu Parish Sheriff Deputies walking toward him. As he attempted to drive away, one of them flagged Morris down, so he stopped. A deputy asked Morris some questions and requested his driver’s license to confirm his identity and run a warrant check. Two more deputies arrived on scene, and after a couple more minutes of questioning, one of the deputies asked Morris to exit his vehicle.

The deputy told Morris that they were “trying to make sure there … [was] no illegal activity,” that it was a “high drug area,” and that the “more” he cooperated and “faster” he cooperated, “the faster … [they would] be done and let … [him] go.” After the “deputy asked Morris if he had been drinking, doing any drugs, or breaking into any trucks,” Morris responded “in the negative, … the deputy again instructed that ‘the more you cooperate, the faster we get done.’”

Morris agreed to the deputy’s initial request to search his person but not his car. The deputy made two additional requests to search the vehicle. Morris declined both requests and asked the deputy if he had a warrant. The deputy responded that a warrant was not needed “if Morris would give his consent.” Morris started to reply, “but the deputy cut him off” by explaining that it was “a high drug area” and that they just wanted “to make sure … [Morris was] not up to any type of shenanigans or shit.” The deputy again told Morris that the “more” he cooperated and “faster” he cooperated, the “faster” they would be done. He then asked Morris a fourth time to search his car.

Morris told the deputy that “there was nothing in his car and that he was just trying to get some sleep.” The deputy responded, “If you want to go back to sleep, let us … people who are innocent don’t—.” Appearing exasperated, Morris then consented to a search of his vehicle, which led to the deputies finding a glass pipe and a kilogram of heroin.

After Morris was indicted on one count of possession with intent to distribute a kilogram or more of heroin, he filed a motion to suppress the evidence. A hearing was held on the motion, the magistrate report and recommendation (“R&R”) was issued, and the district court adopted the R&R, ruling that, for Fourth Amendment purposes, the deputies did not “stop” Morris because they “did not physically block” his car, their encounter with Morris was brief, and “nothing about the tone of the deputies or the questions [they] asked would have made … [Morris] feel he was not free to leave.” Since a “stop” did not occur, the district court further ruled that “reasonable suspicion” was not required to “justify [the deputies’] encounter with Morris,” and Morris “freely and voluntarily” consented to the search.

Morris entered a conditional plea agreement and filed a notice of appeal of the denial of his motion to suppress.

The Court began its analysis by explaining that consent generally renders a search lawful; however, when consent is given in connection with an unlawful detention, such consent may not be sufficient to “dissipate the taint” of the Fourth Amendment violation. United States v. Chavez-Villarreal, 3 F.3d 124 (5th Cir. 1993) (citing Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590 (1975)). For valid consent, the Court stated, it “must be both voluntary and given as an independent act of free will in order to attenuate its connection with the illegal detention.” Id. If both conditions aren’t satisfied, consent is “obtained by exploitation of the illegality,” and any evidence discovered as a result must be suppressed. Brown.

The voluntariness prong “focuses on coercion,” and the independent act of free will prong focuses on any “causal connection” with the constitutional violation. Chavez-Villarreal. Consequently, the Court noted that the threshold question in determining whether Morris’ consent passes constitutional muster turns on whether he was “stopped” under the Fourth Amendment thereby triggering constitutional protections. 

A stop occurs when a person submits to a show of governmental authority that would lead a reasonable person to believe he is not free to leave. California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621 (1991). Show of authority includes more than just verbal commands. See id. It also includes visual signals designed to cause a person to stop such as the flashing lights of a police cruiser, id., as well as physical obstacles like a roadblock. Brower v. Cnty. Of Inyo, 489 U.S. 593 (1989). This determination examines the totality of the circumstances, including the number of officers involved and tone and content of questioning indicating that “compliance with the officer’s request might be compelled.” United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544 (1980).     

Turning to the present case, the Court stated that any reasonable person in Morris’ position would have believed, correctly, that he was obligated to stop when the deputy flagged him down. Motorists must stop when faced with the flashing lights of a police cruiser; similarly, they must stop when police on foot command them to do so. See Hodari D. The Court pointed out that under Louisiana law motorists are required to obey any command from a police officer, including those given by hand signals. La. R.S. 32:56.

Once the deputies signaled for Morris to stop, he was required to do so under state law, and so, he was not free to ignore them and leave, the Court stated. Whether they physically blocked his vehicle is irrelevant because he was obligated to submit to their show of authority. Thus, the Court concluded that a Fourth Amendment stop occurred when the deputies flagged Morris down and ruled that the district court erred in concluding otherwise.

The Court stated that a search or seizure must be “justified at its inception,” United States v. Brigham, 382 F.3d 500 (5th Cir. 2004), so the deputies were required to have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity when they initially seized or stopped him. See Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). Notably, simply being located in an alleged high-crime area is insufficient to justify a stop under the Fourth Amendment. Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119 (2000).

If the deputies stopped Morris without the requisite reasonable suspicion, they violated the Fourth Amendment, see id., and may have tainted Morris’ consent to search, the Court stated. Chavez-Villarreal. Without valid consent, any evidence recovered is required to be suppressed as fruits of the poisonous tree. United States v. Jenson, 462 F.3d 399 (5th Cir. 2006).

The Court explained that remand was required so that the district court can determine, in the first instance, whether the deputies stopped Morris without reasonable suspicion. The initial determination of reasonable suspicion is a fact-intensive inquiry, and district courts are the superior fact-finder in our judicial system, according to the Court. Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690 (1996).

Accordingly, the Court vacated the district court’s denial of Morris’ motion and remanded for the district court to make a determination of whether the deputies’ stop of Morris’ vehicle and the subsequent search were consistent with the Fourth Amendment. See: United States v. Morris, 40 F.4th 323 (5th Cir. 2022). 

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