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Questioning the defendant during a Terry stop about a matter unrelated to the Terry stop did not violate the Fourth Amendment

In U.S. v. Griffin, a police officer in Jacksonville, Florida, responded to a call from a store about an attempted theft, he recognized strip mall as a location where there had been several burglaries and drug activity. Upon arriving at the store, the security guard told him that someone tried to steal some clothing and pointed to the direction the suspect went. The officer spotted a group of eight people, but only the defendant Griffin fit the description. He followed the defendant for a short time. When he called for the defendant to stop, the defendant continued to move away in an evasive manner. As the officer approached Griffin he put both hands on Griffin’s wrists and told him he was investigating a theft. Griffin denied stealing anything but the officer frisked him to ensure his safety. In his pocket, he felt what he thought were a couple of C-cell batteries. He did not reach into the pocket but unsure of what it was or why Griffin would be carrying batteries he asked: “Hey what’s in you pocket and why do you have batteries?” The defendant answered that they were shotgun shells and not batteries. The officer then asked if he had ever been to prison, and the Defendant replied yes. Griffin was arrested and charged with being a felon in possession of ammunition.

The district court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress the ammunition and statements because it found that although the initial stop and the ensuing frisk was permissible, the questioning by the officer went beyond the scope necessary to ensure the officer’s safety and became an unreasonable search when the officer continued to probe and investigate about the items he felt in the defendant’s pocket.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed. It found the initial stop and pat down was a permissible stop under the Fourth Amendment. Under these circumstances the officer may conduct a pat down pursuant to Terry v. Ohio, if he reasonably believes his safety and the safety of others is threatened. The officer was alone in a high crime area with six to eight others persons in the vicinity and the defendant had refused to stop when the officer was investigating an alleged theft. All of this justified the initial stop and frisk.

Quoting Arizona v. Johnson, the court found that mere questioning into matters unrelated to the justification for the stop do not make it an unlawful seizure as long as the inquiries do not extend the stop into a seizure. The Eleventh Circuit agreed with decisions from a majority of the circuits which held that questions unrelated to the initial reason for the Terry stop do not create a problem under the Fourth Amendment unless they measurably extend the duration of the stop. Absent a prolonged detention, questioning by the officer does not constitute a Fourth Amendment violation. Here, the Eleventh Circuit found the officer’s questions were brief, and he had not yet completed his investigation into the theft. It did not transform the stop into an “unconstitutionally prolonged seizure.” Questioning the Defendant did not amount to a search under the Fourth Amendment. Furthermore, the frisk that led to the officer finding what appeared to be C cell batteries did not extend beyond a permissible Terry search as the officer did not place his hands inside the pocket to determine what the object was. He merely asked the Defendant about the object and it was permissible to ask him what was in his pocket.

In case you missed, kindly read our previous post:
Warrantless search of home for guns upheld after the Defendant arrested outside the house, September 26, 2012