Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Knights: Race Not A Factor in Seizure Inquiry

In United States v. Knights, No. 19-10083 (Mar. 10, 2021) (William Pryor, Rosenbaum, K. Michael Moore), the Court granted defendant's motion for panel rehearing, vacated its original opinion (published August 3, 2020), and substituted in its place a new opinion again affirming the district court's denial of defendant's motion to suppress.   

Two officers saw defendant and a friend around 1:00 a.m. in a car that was parked in the front yard of a home in a "high crime" area.  Suspecting that the men might be trying to steal the car, officers parked near the car, approached the car with a flashlight, and knocked on the driver's side window, where defendant was seated.  When the defendant opened the car door, officers smelled marijuana and searched the car, finding ammunition and firearms.  Defendant was charged with being a felon in possession.  

Defendant moved to suppress his admissions and the evidence found during the officers' search, arguing that they were fruits of an illegal seizure that occurred when--without reasonable suspicion--officers parked behind his car, or, at the latest, when they walked up to his car.  The district court found that the officers did not seize the defendant when they parked their patrol car and walked up to him because the encounter was consensual--the defendant was free to walk or drive away.  On appeal, the defendant argued that his perspective as a young black man was relevant to the question of whether a seizure occurred.  In its original opinion, the Court agreed that the age and race of a suspect may be relevant factors, but concluded that they were not decisive in defendant's appeal.  In defendant's petition for rehearing, he argued that the Court erred by not treating his identity as a factor that mattered, and that the correct inquiry was whether a reasonable young black man would have felt free to walk or drive away from the police.

Upon reconsideration, the Court once again concluded that the encounter was consensual, and that a reasonable person would have felt free to leave.  The officers did not activate their patrol-car lights or siren, display their weapons, touch the defendant, or even speak to him, much less issue any commands.  Their use of a flashlight did not communicate a show of authority either.  The Court found persuasive the fact that the defendant's friend did, in fact, ignore the officers and walk away.  In response to defendant's argument that a reasonable person would not have walked away because doing so would have required abandoning his car in a high-crime area, the Court found that two officers were near the car and defendant could have easily returned as soon as they left. 

The Court went on to hold that, unlike age, the race of a suspect is never a factor in the threshold seizure inquiry (though it may be considered when determining the voluntariness of a seizure).  The existence of a seizure is an objective question, so the Court asks whether a reasonable person would have believed he was not free to leave in light of the totality of the circumstances.  The circumstances of the situation are the key to this inquiry.  A suspect's personal characteristics--such as age--are considered only insofar as they have an objectively discernable relationship to a reasonable person's understanding of his freedom of action.  The Court concluded that most personal characteristics, including race, do not lend themselves to objective conclusions.  The Court further noted that even if it were possible to derive uniform attitudes from a characteristic like race, there is no workable method to translate general attitudes towards the police into rigorous analysis of how a reasonable person would understand his freedom of action in a particular situation.  And finally, the Court noted that even if it could devise an objective way to consider race, it could not apply a race-conscious reasonable-person test without running afoul of the Equal Protection Clause.  

Judge Rosenbaum, concurring in the judgment only, wrote separately to "emphasize the perils that ambiguous police interactions can cause and to respectfully suggest that the Supreme Court consider adopting a bright-line rule requiring officers to clearly advise citizens of their right to end a so-called consensual police encounter."