Under both the Washington and U.S. Constitutions, warrantless seizures are generally prohibited. Police may, however, briefly stop and question a person if the officer has a well-founded suspicion the person was connected to actual or potential criminal activity. The suspicion must be based on objective facts. This type of stop is called an investigative stop or a Terry stop. In a recent case, a man challenged a conviction, arguing he had been placed under custodial arrest without probable cause and not held for a Terry stop.
A store employee called 911 when she saw a man in the store she thought had previously stolen video equipment. She described the man and said she had not seen him steal anything that day, but there was video of him stealing previously. She told the 911 operator the direction he was riding his bike after he left the store.
A police officer found the defendant, who matched most of the description and was riding his bike in the direction the employee stated. The officer told the defendant about the 911 call. The defendant denied being involved in a theft. The officer told him he could not leave and handcuffed him. The officer also gave him his Miranda warning.
The officer then questioned the defendant. After the officer told him he could be identified in the videos, the defendant admitted stealing and selling the cameras. A store employee came to the scene and identified the defendant as the suspect. The officer told the defendant he was under arrest and searched him. The officer found a pipe with methamphetamine residue and two bags.
The defendant was ultimately charged with first degree trafficking in stolen property and unlawful possession of a controlled substance. He moved to suppress the evidence obtained while he was detained by the officer, arguing the officer put him under custodial arrest without probable cause when he handcuffed him. The defendant also moved to dismiss the charges due to a delay in the charges being filed.
The trial court denied the motion to suppress, finding the officer detained the defendant to investigate and arrested him at the time the officer told him he was under arrest. The trial court found the officer had reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigatory stop.
The jury convicted the defendant of the possession charge but acquitted him of the trafficking in stolen property charge. The defendant appealed.
The appeals court noted it had to determine when the arrest actually occurred, because the timing of the handcuffing and Miranda warning were unusual.
The state argued a person is not under arrest until the officer tells him he is under arrest. The appeals court noted the officer stating the suspect is under arrest is a factor, but is not determinative and an officer does not have to state an intent to arrest for an arrest to have occurred. The appeals court pointed out such a rule would allow law enforcement to manipulate suspects’ Fourth Amendment rights by simply not announcing an arrest.
The state argued the officer did not intend to arrest the defendant until after the confession, and that his intent determined whether the seizure constituted an arrest. Under Washington law, whether a person is in custody is based on the “‘manifestation’ of the arresting officer’s intent,” but the appeals court pointed out it is the manifestation and not the officer’s subjective intent that controls. The test for whether an arrest has occurred is whether a reasonable person under the circumstances would think he was under custodial arrest.
The defendant pointed out he was handcuffed. The state argued that alone does not define an arrest. The appeals court noted an officer may handcuff a person during an investigative stop but must generally articulate why he deemed the person dangerous or a flight risk. The officer in this case did not testify that he believed the defendant was dangerous or a flight risk. The appeals court noted that [h]andcuffing is a hallmark of a formal arrest.”
The defendant also pointed out that the officer gave him his Miranda warning when he handcuffed him. Miranda warnings are not required until the suspect is arrested, so the court found it weighed in favor of finding an arrest had occurred.
The appeals court found the defendant was arrested when he was handcuffed. He had been told he was not free to leave. He was given his Miranda warning. Based on the totality of the circumstances, he had been arrested.
The state argued there is a level between an investigatory stop and arrest, but did not provide any Fourth Amendment law supporting its argument.
Because the appeals court found the officer arrested the defendant, the state had to show he had probable cause the defendant committed a crime to support the arrest. The state did not provide an evaluation regarding whether the officer had probable cause at the time he gave the Miranda warning and therefore did not meet its burden. The appeals court then found the evidence of methamphetamine should be suppressed.
The appeals court reversed the defendant’s conviction and dismissed the possession charge.
As this case shows, evidence discovered in an unlawful search or seizure should generally be suppressed. If you are facing criminal charges, you need a skilled Washington criminal defense attorney. Blair & Kim, PLLC can help you fight for your rights. Call us at (206) 622-6562 to set up a consultation.