In An En Banc Ruling in United States v. Curry, The Fourth Circuit Court Of Appeals Affirmed The Eastern District Of Virginia's District Court Judge's Decision To Suppress Evidence From A "Suspicionless Stop" Of A Pedestrian

On July 16, 2020, the Fourth Circuit sitting en banc upheld the Eastern District of Virginia’s conclusion that purported exigent circumstances arising from “the sound of gunshots” did not justify the suspicionless seizure of Mr. Curry, a pedestrian who had been walking in the “general area” where the shots were heard.

The Court explained that because the officers did not have reasonable suspicion when they initially stopped Mr. Curry, the Government was required to show that exigent circumstances justified their initial seizure of him. Because the Court determined no “exigent circumstances” existed, the evidence obtained from the search and seizure of Mr. Curry had to be suppressed.

In ruling that the evidence obtained from the search had to be suppressed, the Fourth Circuit explained that the Government’s reliance on “the need to protect individuals who are threatened with imminent harm” as the type of exigency present here, was unpersuasive because circumstances that present an “emergency” have been narrowly construed, and even a possible homicide, does not necessarily present an “emergency situation” demanding “immediate [warrantless] action.” The Court noted the relative paucity of precedential case law explaining how the exigent circumstances exception may apply to a suspicionless investigatory seizure of an individual (as opposed to a search of a domicile) and concluded that each of the previous cases addressing this issue employed specific and clear limiting principles that were missing from the circumstances surrounding the stop of Mr. Curry.

In sum, the Fourth Circuit determined that suspicionless seizures must be narrowly targeted based on specific information of a known crime and a controlled geographic area. According to the Court, examples of properly targeted suspicionless seizures which would fall within the “emergency situation” category of exigencies include vehicular checkpoints specifically set up to stop individuals who are leaving the scene of a crime and other searches for which the police have obtained specific information about a crime and the suspect prior to pursuing the seizure. Such limiting principles were entirely absent from the search and seizure of Mr. Curry and therefore it violated the Fourth Amendment, and its fruits could not be admitted as evidence against Mr. Curry. In an apparent attempt to justify its suppression of this evidence, the Fourth Circuit explained that its holding should not be interpreted as hindering the police’s ability to forcefully respond to actual emergencies, such as active shooter situations, but rather, is limited to the particular facts and circumstances in this case, specifically that the limited and vague information the officers possessed regarding a possible crime, was simply insufficient to seize Mr. Curry without reasonable suspicion.

Nathans & Biddle LLP is a highly respected advocate for individuals and businesses involved in a broad spectrum of criminal and civil disputes, forfeitures, and attorney grievance matters. With offices in Baltimore, Annapolis, and Greenbelt, we represent clients across Maryland (both federal and state courts), the Washington D.C. area, and several other federal courts across the country.

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