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Eleventh Circuit orders evidence suppressed resulting from a bad Terry stop

In U.S. v. Valerio the defendant became the target of a federal drug investigation when he was spotted at a hydroponic gardening equipment store by DEA agents acting suspiciously. After the defendant drove away, the agent followed the defendant’s truck and concluded he was acting nervous about being followed. Two weeks later the agents spotted the defendant again at the store and followed him to a Deerfield Beach warehouse where he entered one of the bays. The agents believed the warehouse was in a location suitable for a marijuana grow house operation. Agents later brought out a K-9 dog to sniff the doors but it did not alert to the bay that the defendant had entered. After coming up short the law enforcement decided to send agents to his house to knock on his door and ask to speak with him. They waited for the defendant to emerge from his house. Instead of approaching him to ask questions, they blocked his truck has he tried to drive away from his driveway. One of the agents wearing a bullet proof vest bearing the words “police” drew his firearm and ordered him out of the truck. They conducted a full pat-down search and escorted him to the front of his truck. When asked if he operated grow house he admitted to operating one inside a bay at the warehouse.

The circumstances surrounding the stop and seizure of the defendant did not fall within the Fourth Amendment exception pursuant to Terry v. Ohio. The court found the timing and circumstances surrounding the officer’s seizure of the defendant placed it well outside the Terry exception to probable cause requirement. Given the delay and absence of a contemporaneous observations of the defendant that required swift law enforcement action, the court found there was no activity that would support the underlying purpose behind Terry exception to the probable cause requirement. While there may have been suspicious activity at the time he was observed a week earlier, the passage of time allowed the police to conduct conventional criminal investigation. They could have continued to conduct surveillance of the warehouse or his residence, verify his connection to the warehouse through utility records, or conduct a voluntary encounter with him. None of these investigative tactic would have been a problem under the Fourth Amendment prohibition against warrantless search and seizure. The opportunity to Terry stop is only “justified by and limited to the exigent circumstances of the moment” and cannot be used later after the exigency has expired. “The exception established in Terry to the general Fourth Amendment requirement that all seizures be supported by probable cause is justified by the exigencies associated with law enforcement dealing with the rapid unfolding and often dangerous situations on city streets.” There was no exigency when the defendant exited his house and entered his truck and there was no probable cause to believe he was involved in any illegal activity when he was seized. Statements made by the defendant and evidence obtained as a result of the illegal seizure should have been suppressed.

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