Anthony Knights was convicted of the federal offense of possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon. In his appeal he challenged his conviction claiming the arresting officer violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure when officers conducted an investigatory stop of his car without reasonable suspicion. Two officers saw Knights and another man around 1:00 a.m. in a car parked in the front yard of a home. Suspecting that the two men might be trying to steal the car, the officers parked near it and approached Knights, who was in the driver’s seat. When Knights opened the door, and officer immediately smelled marijuana. The ensuing search of Knights and the car revealed ammunition and firearms.
The federal trial court denied his pretrial motion to suppress the evidence. In his appeal Knights argued that the district court should have suppressed his admissions and evidence because the officers stopped him without reasonable suspicion when they parked the patrol car close to his car, and then approached him. The trial court found that initial encounter was consensual.
The appeals court agreed with the lower court’s decision that Knights was free to leave this initial encounter with the police and a reasonable person would have felt free to leave. In fact, the other man did leave, and Knights was capable of walking away too. He also could have driven away. Before approaching Knight, the officers did not activate the lightbar or siren on the patrol car and they allowed the friend to leave the car and ignored their invitation to talk as the friend entered the house where the car was parked. The appeals court noted that the officers parked near his car with enough space for him to drive away and when they approached Knight to speak to him, they did so without conveying that Knight was required to comply. The fact that one of the officers carried a flashlight when he approached the car was not communicating a show of authority in these circumstances.
The court also rejected Knights’ argument that in the presence of two officers, young African-American men fell they cannot walk away from police without risking arrest or bodily harm. The appeals court rejected the argument that this was a coercive encounter. It determined that race of a suspect is never a factor in a seizure analysis and cannot be a factor in the threshold seizure inquiry. The court held that in a Fourth Amendment analysis for a stop by an officer, it may not consider race to determine whether a seizure has occurred. The existence of a seizure is an objective question and issue is where a reasonable person would have believed he was not free to leave in light of the totality of the circumstances and this is based on the police officer’s objective behavior. It found that personal characteristics including race do not lend themselves to objective conclusions. The court noted in support if its position that race cannot be used as a factor. “ There is no uniform life experience for persons of color, and there are surely divergent attitudes toward law enforcement officers among members of the population.”
In a concurring opinion, Judge Rosenbaum argues that the current “fee to leave” test is no longer workable and suggests the Supreme Court adopt a bright-line standard requiring officers to clearly advise citizens of their right to end a consensual police encounter.