Monday, May 13, 2013

State of Maine v. Collier: No RAS, No Seizure, No Problem

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court recently decided State of Maine v. Matthew Collier 2013 ME 44, and vacated the trial court's order granting a motion to suppress. The court disagreed with the trial judge and found that, while there was no reasonable articulable suspicion to support a traffic stop, no RAS was needed since the defendant's interaction with police did not constitute a seizure for fourth amendment purposes.

Facts of the Case

Collier was driving home around one in the morning and a police cruiser followed him for one or two miles. In the cruiser were two State Troopers and they did not observe any defects in the vehicle, any erratic operation or violations of traffic laws. Collier turned into a parking lot and the troopers followed him in there. Collier stopped the vehicle and the officer passed by then circled back toward his car. Collier got out of his car and went to the front of it. The officer stopped and asked through the cruiser window “What’s going on?” Collier explained that he was checking to see if he had a headlight out. The officer got out of the vehicle and approached Collier. He smelled the order of intoxicants, questions led to admissions of drinking, then field sobriety tests and an arrest for operating under the influence.

The defense filed a motion to suppress evidence arguing that: (1) The police action amounted to a "seizure" of Collier. (2) That Seizure was unconstitutional since it was not justified by reasonable articulable suspicion of illegal activity. Justice Cuddy held a testimonial hearing and suppressed all evidence derived from the police encounter. The State appealed that order and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has now reversed. State v. Collier 2013 ME 44.

The Fourth Amendment Issue

On appeal, the State did not dispute that the officer lacked reasonable articulable suspicion for a traffic stop but did challenge whether that the circumstances here amounted to a seizure. That is the issue that the Maine Supreme Judicial Court considered. They started by restating the basic rule:
"The Fourth Amendment is implicated only when an encounter results in a seizure of a person; such a seizure occurs when, “in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. at 554; see Gulick, 2000 ME
170, ¶ 10, 759 A.2d 1085." Collier ¶ 7.
If there is no seizure, then it doesn't matter what suspicion the police had, they don't need any since they didn't make any consitutionally recognized restrain the person's liberty.

So What's a Seizure?

The question of whether there was a seizure depends on the specific facts and circumstances of the police encounter. The court explained that "Whether a seizure occurred is evaluated according to an objective standard that depends on the officer’s use of physical force or show of authority" Id. ¶ 8. The court said the following factors should be considered:
  1. “the threatening presence of several officers”;
  2. the display or use of a weapon;
  3. the use of physical touching or force;
  4. the “language or tone of voice indicating that compliance with the officer’s request might be compelled”;
  5. whether the officer was blocking the defendant’s path to leave;
  6. the use of sirens, lights, or a loudspeaker;
  7. the display of a badge or wearing of a uniform;
  8. the location of the encounter;
  9. whether there was a chase; and
  10. whether the officer approaches on foot or in a vehicle.

Was Collier Seized?

I don't have the hearing transcripts and the opinion does not reproduce any of the testimony which is odd since the entire case turns on whether the evidence at hearing supports a finding that the defendant was seized. On the facts available, a good number break in favor of the defense:
  1. There were two troopers, not just one.
  2. They both had guns, batons, tasers, and pepper spray at their sides.
  3. The trooper initiated contact with Collier.
  4. The troopers were both wearing uniforms that traditionally have badges attached to them and were driving a marked State Police cruiser.
  5. The encounter was at night in a parking lot presumably with a limited number of ways in and out.
  6. There was no chase but the cruiser followed Collier for perhaps two miles prior to the encounter.
  7. The troopers approached by car and then by foot.
Obviously, the question is very fact specific and the judge hearing the motion to suppress must carefully consider the evidence to determine whether there was a seizure. The Law Court is supposed to defer to the trial judge on such factual issues, as the court notes, "As the unsuccessful party with the burden of proof before the suppression court, it is now the State’s burden to demonstrate that the trial court was compelled to make findings in its favor." Collier ¶ 6. So you would expect that, the Court would now carefully review the findings below and consider how the facts broke down and which findings should have gone the State's way. Here is that discussion:
Although the trooper was in uniform, in a marked police cruiser, accompanied by another trooper, and the first to speak to Collier, the undisputed facts establish that Collier had already stopped his vehicle before the trooper approached him; Collier appeared to be approaching the trooper’s vehicle before the trooper even exited his vehicle; and the trooper did not show a badge or inform Collier he was not free to leave, employ the blue lights on the vehicle, use a siren or loudspeaker, block Collier’s way out, touch Collier in any way, raise his voice to Collier or speak in an intimidating tone, display a weapon, or make any demand of or instruction to Collier. ¶ 10.
The trial judge focused on the facts that suggested Collier was not free to leave while the Law Court focused on the absence of facts that would have strengthened the defense argument. While some factors were there, some weren't and, in the Law Court's opinion, the absent facts were more important than those presented:
As a matter of law, in the absence of some such physical force or show of authority, there was no intrusion on Collier’s liberty or privacy that required any reasonable articulable suspicion, and any belief Collier may have had that he was not free to leave the encounter was objectively unreasonable. ¶11.
So as it turns out, he was free to go, Collier could have just got in his car and driven away. If only he'd known that at the time.

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