In Terry v. Ohio (1968), the United States Supreme Court established a well-known rule for stopping persons and vehicles suspected of crimes. Although probable cause to arrest is not required for a brief "investigatory stop," an officer must have at least a "reasonable suspicion" that the persons or the occupants of a vehicle stopped are involved in criminal activity, and the officer must be able to articulate the reasons for that suspicion. Three recent decisions of Ohio appellate courts remind us that there is a definite limit on the use of such investigatory stops.
In Fairlawn v. Skoblar (1997), a police officer observed Skoblar leaving a cemetery around midnight with several young passengers in his vehicle. The officer had heard complaints of possible "devil worship" in the cemetery, so she decided to stop the vehicle and investigate the possibility of criminal activity.
When Skoblar stepped out of the car he appeared unsteady and exhibited other traits which led the officer to believe that he was drinking. The officer administered field sobriety tests and arrested Skoblar for driving under the influence of alcohol.
The trial court granted a motion to suppress evidence obtained during the traffic stop because the officer lacked a reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Terry established that a police officer who lacks probable cause, but whose observations lead him to reasonably suspect that a particular individual has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime, may detain that person briefly in order to investigate the circumstances that provoke suspicion.
In Skoblar, the officer never acknowledged a "reasonable suspicion" that the driver of the vehicle exiting the cemetery had engaged in criminal activity; she stated only that there was a possibility. She did not observe anything suspicious when she had patrolled the cemetery earlier, nor did she observe any moving violations or equipment violations that would have warranted a traffic stop. Without at least a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, the officer was not justified in stopping Skoblar's vehicle.
In State v. Amburgy (1997), Tammy Newton telephoned the police to complain that Amburgy was at her home, and that she wanted him to leave. An officer arrived and convinced Amburgy to leave. When the officer saw Amburgy headed towards Newton's residence ten minutes later, he again warned Amburgy to stay away.
Fifteen minutes later, Newton called and told the police that Amburgy had returned to her home. By the time the officer arrived, Amburgy had left, but Newton told the officer that Amburgy had picked up something, and that she thought it was drugs.
Amburgy was spotted less than a block from the house, as a passenger in a truck. The truck was pulled over, and the driver gave consent to search. During the search, cocaine was found near the passenger's seat, and Amburgy was arrested.
The trial court found that the officers had no reason to suspect that the occupants in the truck had engaged in, or were in the process of engaging in, any criminal activity. The appellate court upheld that decision, concluding that the officers lacked a reasonable suspicion that Amburgy had violated the state's drug laws because Newton had not claimed that she saw Amburgy pick up drugs, only that she thought he had done so. Therefore, the stop of the vehicle and the detention of the occupants were ruled unconstitutional, and the cocaine found during the search was suppressed as evidence.
Likewise, in State v. Shepherd (1997), the drug abuse conviction of Patricia Ann Shepherd was overturned due to a lack of reliable information which would justify a stop.
In that case, a Dayton police officer was on routine patrol in a "high crime area" of the city. He observed a white Pontiac TransAm with five or six individuals standing around it in such a way that he suspected "narcotic activity".
As the officer approached, the driver closed his passenger door and quickly drove away. The officer initiated a traffic stop because of a defective muffler. The vehicle's driver was Melvin Wygant, who disclosed that he was in the area to purchase narcotics, and that a woman had gotten into the car to sell him crack cocaine. He described the would-be seller as a black female of medium to medium-dark complexion. He also described her height and the clothing that she was wearing.
Based on that information, officers detained and questioned a woman matching the description given. Before she was placed in the rear of their cruiser, they conducted a "visual inspection" of her pockets. Normally, the officers would have conducted a patdown search, but since no female officer was available, they ordered her to open her pockets and allow them to look inside them.
While peering into the left breast pocket of the woman's coat, an officer observed a small piece of rolled brown paper, which he recognized as a common container for crack cocaine. At his request, Ms. Shepherd removed the paper and handed it to him. It contained crack cocaine.
The trial court determined that the officers had a reasonable suspicion that Shepherd was engaged in criminal activity because she was found in the area where the aborted drug transaction was said to have occurred, she matched the description given by Wygant, and the location was a "high drug area." However, the appellate court reversed that decision, finding that Wygant was not a reliable source of information.
In reaching its decision, the appellate court noted that Wygant was not a victim or a mere witness to a crime; he was in the area attempting to buy drugs. The officer could not vouch for his credibility, and as a criminal suspect under police detention, with every incentive to point officers in another direction, his information should have been regarded with the highest scrutiny. Since the police sought no independent corroboration of Wygant's story, all that remained were neutral details. The offier did not see Shepherd engage in any activity of a suspicious nature, such as entering and exiting parked cars along the street; he merely verified that a woman meeting the general description was in the area. The only other independent fact supporting reasonable suspicion was that the location was a "high drug area." Since courts have stated that a person's mere presence in an area of high crime activity does not suspend the protections of the Fourth Amendment, the investigatory stop and search was ruled unconstitutional, and the cocaine was suppressed as evidence.