Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Griffin: Questioning is not a Fourth Amendment event

In U.S. v. Griffin, No. 11-15558 (Oct. 2, 2012), the Court reversed the district court’s grant of a motion to suppress, finding that a constitutionally valid stop and frisk did not become unreasonable when the officer asked some brief questions unrelated to the reason for the stop and the purpose of the frisk.

Responding to a 911 call, a Jacksonville police officer arrived at a store. The security guard pointed to a man walking quickly away as a person who’d attempted to steal some clothing. The officer followed the person, Griffin, who continued to look over his shoulder and walk briskly away. The officer told him to stop. Griffin continued to walk away. The officer stopped Griffin, and frisked him to ensure his own safety.

During the frisk, the officer felt what he believed were C-cell batteries in Griffin’s back pocket. He did not reach into the pocket but asked “Hey, what’s in your pockets? Why do you have batteries.” Griffin responded that the items were shotgun shells and not batteries. The officer asked Griffin if he had ever been to prison. Griffin answered: “yes.” After the officer informed him that it was illegal for felons to possess weapons or ammunition, Griffin began to flee. The officer arrested him. Griffin was charged with being a felon in possession of ammunition, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).

The Court noted that the initial stop of Griffin was permissible, because the officer reasonably suspected that Griffin had attempted to steal some clothing.

The Court rejected the argument that the frisk was unjustified. The Court noted that the officer was alone, in a high crime area, had not been told anything about Griffin other than he tried to steal some item of clothing. Griffin acted evasively and refused to obey the command that he stop. The officer had not finished investigating the alleged attempted theft. For these reasons, the frisk was consistent with Terry v. Ohio and its progeny. The frisk did not violate Minnesota v. Dickerson, because the officer did not continue an exploration of the pocket after feeling the items in the pocket. The officer did not reach into the pocket, but instead asked Griffin why he was carrying batteries.

The Court rejected the district court’s conclusion that the questioning of Griffin about the items in his back pocket violated the Fourth Amendment because it was not reasonably related to the circumstances that justified the stop. The Court stated that “unrelated questions posed during a valid Terry s top do not create a Fourth Amendment problem unless they measurably extend the duration of the stop. This is because such questions, absent a prolonged detention, do not constitute a discrete Fourth Amendment event.”

The Court found that the exchange between the officer and Griffin did not last more than 30 seconds. This “brief” questioning did not transform the stop into an unconstitutionally prolonged seizure.