Friday, April 02, 2010

Hand-to-Hand Activity Leads to Reasonable Suspicion, Arrest

US v. Johnson: Johnson was observed on a sidewalk in Baltimore in a neighborhood known for drug activity. An officer saw him make "quick hand-to-hand contact with three different men," which the officer interpreted as being drug transactions. The officer then saw Johnson, with two other men in tow, head for a restaurant, which aroused suspicion because "local dealers sometimes conduct their business in legitimate shops in order to elude police cameras." Officers followed Johnson and another man (the third one kept walking up the street) into the restaurant, identified themselves, and asked Johnson to show his hands. Johnson threw a single heroin gelcap of the restaurant counter. "A struggle ensued," after which Johnson was arrested. Reviewing surveillance videos, officers discovered a car in which they suspected Johnson was storing drugs, which they confirmed when they saw more gelcaps in plain view. A search of the car turned up drugs and a firearm. Johnson pleaded guilty to drug and gun charges after unsuccessfully moving to suppress the evidence discovered as a result of his detention and search of his car.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of the motion to suppress. First, the court concluded that it was reasonable, based on his experience, for the officer to infer that Johnson's behavior on the sidewalk was related to drug transactions. It rejected Johnson's contention that the officer's experience, regardless of its depth, could transform his outwardly legal behavior into something suspicious. The court also criticized Johnson for disregarding the factual findings of the district court, noting that "[d]istrict courts offer an unbiased forum to test the conclusions of police, and they possess a perspective that appellate forums cannot match." Second, the court held that Johnson was properly seized by an officer in possession of reasonable suspicion when he threw away the gelcap in the restaurant. Third, the court held that the money recovered from Johnson was found during a search incident to a lawful arrest, for which the officers had probable cause once they saw the gelcap. Finally, the court held that there was probable cause to search Johnson's car.

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