Nahmod Law

Is There a Fourth Amendment Seizure When a Person Flees?

The en banc Eighth Circuit was sharply divided about the existence of a Fourth Amendment seizure in a case where, among other things, a person fled after an officer in a police car stopped directly in front of him and his friend, one Michael Brown (yes, that Michael Brown, who was subsequently shot and killed by the police officer while also fleeing) and where the police officer yelled at them to “Get the f*ck on the sidewalk.” And because the Supreme subsequently denied certiorari, it did not decide the matter. Johnson v. City of Ferguson, Missouri, 864 F.3d 866, 873 (8th Cir. 2017), as corrected (July 31, 2017) and reh’g en banc granted, opinion vacated (Sept. 12, 2017) and on reh’g en banc, 926 F.3d 504 (8th Cir. 2019)(en banc), cert. denied, 2019 WL 6257423 (U.S. 2019)

In Johnson, the Eighth Circuit panel had initially found a seizure where “[the plaintiff] Johnson’s complaint alleged that Officer Wilson stopped his car at an angle, directly in front of Johnson and Brown, so as to block their path after yelling at them to ‘Get the f*ck on the sidewalk.’” For one thing, the plaintiff actually stopped when the defendant blocked his path. This was a submission to authority. For another, the stop was more than momentary even though the plaintiff fled after the defendant later shot the plaintiff’s companion.

Thereafter, however, the Eighth Circuit en banc disagreed with the panel and found that there was no seizure of the plaintiff under the circumstances. Among other considerations, the plaintiff conceded in the complaint that he and Brown were not ordered by the officer to stop. Also, the police vehicle did not prevent Johnson from crossing the sidewalk. Moreover, any physical contact by the officer was directed toward Brown in the first instance. “In a word, then, because Johnson himself was neither physically restrained nor prevented from proceeding to the sidewalk in compliance with [the officer’s] directive rather than fleeing as he did,” there was no seizure since Johnson did not submit to a show of authority.

Judge Melloy, joined by Chief Judge Smith and Judges Kelly and Erickson, dissented at length, arguing that there was indeed a Fourth Amendment seizure. 926 F.3d at 507. Judge Melloy explained in the following excerpt from his opinion (citations omitted):

“Here, I believe that Officer Wilson made a show of authority communicating that Johnson ‘was not at liberty to ignore the police presence and go about his business.’ As stated above, the only facts relevant at this procedural posture are those alleged in the complaint. And the Court must accept those facts as true and view them in the light most favorable to Johnson. To recap, Johnson’s complaint alleged the following facts relevant to this issue:

• As Johnson and Brown walked peacefully and ‘lawfully’ down the road, Officer Wilson, operating a marked police vehicle, approached Johnson and Brown, slowed his vehicle to a stop, and ordered them to ‘Get the f*ck on the sidewalk.’

• Officer Wilson continued to drive his vehicle several yards, then abruptly put his vehicle into reverse and parked his vehicle at an angle so as to block the paths of Johnson and Brown.

• Officer Wilson stopped his vehicle just inches from Brown and forcefully opened his door, striking Brown. Officer Wilson then reached through his window and grabbed Brown, who was closer to Officer Wilson than Johnson. Officer Wilson thereafter threatened to shoot his weapon. As Brown struggled to break free, Officer Wilson discharged his weapon twice, striking Brown in the arm. Surprised by Officer Wilson’s use of ‘excessive’ force and fearing for his life, Plaintiff Johnson ran away from Officer Wilson simultaneously with Brown.

By crudely ordering Johnson to move and then abruptly reversing his vehicle and stopping it inches away and directly in Johnson’s path, Officer Wilson communicated an intent to use a roadblock to stop Johnson’s movement. Despite Defendants’ (and amicus curiae’s) argument that the roadblock did not foreclose all of Johnson’s avenues of travel, a reasonable person would understand the roadblock’s purpose was to serve as a ‘physical obstacle’ conveying an order to stop—not an order to go around the vehicle and continue on one’s way. Officer Wilson’s actions thus would convey to the ‘reasonable person that he was not at liberty to ignore the police presence and go about his business.'”

Comment

I have nothing to add except to say that the dissenters have the better of the argument.

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Written by snahmod

October 19, 2020 at 11:38 am

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