Criminal Law Blog

Fourth Amendment Seizure Where Police Blocked a Narrow Path and Ran a Warrant Check While Asking Accusatory Questions

Jones v. United States (decided February 23, 2017)

Players: Associate Judges Glickman and Fisher, Senior Judge Ruiz. Opinion by Judge Glickman. Dissent by Judge Fisher. Joseph A. Mokodean for Mr. Jones. Trial judge: Harold L. Cushenberry, Jr.

Facts: Jones was walking alone in a narrow alley around 6:00 p.m. when two armed, uniformed officers in a marked patrol car drove up the alley. One officer testified that he saw Jones “fiddling with a Newport cigarette box,” which Jones lowered to his side when he saw the police car. The officers drove up alongside Jones, and one officer got out of the car, blocking Jones’s way. The officer questioned Jones in a “cordial” tone for one to two minutes, and relayed the information to his partner so that his partner could run a warrant check. Before the warrant check was complete, the officer asked to see the cigarette box. Jones handed it over and the officer found crack cocaine inside. 

Issue: Had Jones been seized for Fourth Amendment purposes when police asked for the cigarette box, such that the cocaine should have been suppressed? 

Holding: Yes. A reasonable person would not have felt free to leave where armed officers subjected him to accusatory questioning while he was alone in a secluded area, the questioning officer physically blocked his path, and police ran a warrant check, which was still going on when they asked for the cigarette box. 

Of Note
  • The majority called this a “close legal question” and emphasized that the blockage of Jones’s path and the warrant check “materially increased [the] coerciveness” of the encounter.
  • Even though Jones “failed to cite” the fact of the ongoing warrant check in his appellate brief, the majority concluded that he had not abandoned reliance on this factor because his trial counsel had relied on it at the suppression hearing and the trial judge explicitly considered it in ruling, and because his appellate counsel submitted a 28(k) letter before oral argument citing a case analyzing the significance of a warrant check in the Fourth Amendment context.
  • In dissent, Judge Fisher stated that he would have treated as forfeited the argument relating to the impact of the warrant check. He also distinguished the two cases the majority relied on pertaining to the significance of the warrant check.  MW