Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Police search based on generalized description of black male violated Fourth Amendment

Oh man, is this a big win for the defendant. The Court of Appeals rules that the search that produced narcotics was illegal.

The case is United States v. Walker, decided on July 14. It happened in the City of Troy, New York. As defendant Walker and his friend were walking in "a safe area" in the early evening, an officer, Montanino, was looking for a suspect described as follows: "medium to dark skin toned black males" with thin builds, wearing glasses, with facial hair and goatees. Believing these men looked like the guy in the emailed photograph of the suspect, Montanino asked his two subordinates, Conway and Furciniti, to approach the two men to identify them. Walker and friend complied with that request and as the officers ran a background check on them, they found an outstanding arrest warrant for Walker and placed him in handcuffs. Walker's friend was allowed to leave. At the police station, a "search incident to arrest" revealed that Walker was carrying drugs. It turns out that Walker was not the person the police were actually looking for.

While the district court denied the motion to suppress the evidence, the Court of Appeals (Calabresi, Pooler and Carney) reverses and says the search violated the Fourth Amendment. Why? Because the officers lacked reasonable suspicion to even stop Walker in the first instance. While the officer said Walker looked like the man in the photograph, "race, when considered by itself and sometimes even in tandem with other factors, does not generate reasonable suspicion for a stop," and as the Second Circuit held in Dancy v. McGinley, 843 F.3d 93 (2d Cir. 2016) (which I argued), "the description of a suspect as 'thin, black, and male' was too vague to justify a stop of anyone meeting it.'" In addition, "the use of 'black male' and 'medium-to-dark' skin tone captures a wide swath of individuals," and the other traits (glasses, goatees, etc.) are not sufficiently particularized to justify the stop. Nor does it matter that Walker was near a crime scene when this all happened. There was suspicion, but the Fourth Amendment requires reasonable suspicion.

To justify the search, the officers also invoke the "attenuation doctrine," which says the search is legal if the connection between the unconstitutional police conduct and the evidence is too remote or has been interrupted by some intervening circumstance. That narrow defense does not work here because the events -- unlawful stop and subsequent search -- all happened too quickly. And, while Walker was in fact arrested pursuant to a valid warrant (a factor which favors the police in this case), the officers' conduct was "purposeful or flagrant," which tips the scales for Walker, because the explanation for stopping Walker was "woefully short of what the Fourth Amendment requires," and the the officer-in-charge knew right away that Walker was not the person depicted in the emailed photograph.

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