A law enforcement officer can perform a temporary investigative detention of an individual only when the officer can articulate specific facts, which considered in light of the circumstances, provides an objective reason to believe the individual is engaged, or about to engage, in criminal activity.  (A detention occurs when an individual does not feel that he or she is free to leave, as contrasted with a consensual police encounter in which a person can just walk away.)

Note that the officer’s reasons for believing a detention is warranted is an objective standard—the officer’s assessment must be such that a law enforcement officer presented with the same circumstances would reasonably suspect possible criminal activity. Thus, an officer who detained an individual on the suspicion that the individual was engaged in criminal activity simply because that individual is walking in a high crime area would not be objectively reasonable. But if that individual is also observed by the officer in what appears to be a drug transaction, a detention might be objectively reasonable.

Lawful detentions have often been a bone of contention between defense attorneys and the prosecution, and the courts have often taken a fairly hard line on the subject. For example, the courts have held that a lawful detention can be found simply on an individual’s attire, demeanor, evasiveness and other ambiguous circumstances. Whether a detention is lawful or not is important because a lawful detention often leads to a search of and if the officer discovers a crime (for example, find drugs or a weapon on the individual), any subsequent charges can be dismissed if the defendant’s criminal defense attorney files a successful motion to suppress evidence on grounds that the detention was unlawful.

Recently, the California Supreme Court tightened the objectively reasonable standard to detain an individual. In People v. Flores (Cal., May 2, 2024, No. S267522), the court remanded the case back to the trial court, which had denied the defendant’s motion to suppress (and was affirmed by the Court of Appeal), with instructions that the trial enter an order granting the defendant’s motion to suppress.

The background facts are typical of a detention that until now was almost always found lawful when challenged on a motion to suppress. The defendant, Mr. Flores, was sighted by an officer standing alone in an area known for narcotics and gang traffic. When Mr. Flores saw the officers, he ducked behind a car. The officers pulled up to the car where the saw Mr. Flores bending over with his hands near one of his shoes. When the officers told Mr. Flores to stand up, he does not. One of the officers then tells Mr. Flores to stand and put his hands behind his head. Mr. Flores complied, and the officer then put him in handcuffs. At this point, Mr. Flores is clearly detained.

What was the officers’ reasonable suspicion? The officers justified the detention on Mr. Flores’ attempt to conceal himself, which was suspicious, and that he was in an area known for narcotics trade. Note that the officers did not observe Mr. Flores doing anything illegal. After he was detained, the officers searched Mr. Flores’ car and found suspected methamphetamine and a revolver.

Mr. Flores filed a motion to suppress. The trial court denied the motion reasoning that Mr. Flores’ apparent ducking was “odd behavior” and “suspicious.” Mr. Flores appealed the trial court’s denial, but the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment. The Court of Appeal found reasonable suspicion because Mr. Flores tried to avoid contact with the police by ducking and stayed in that crouched position “far too long” and that Mr. Flores was in an area known for drug dealing and gang activity at 10:00 p.m.

Mr. Flores appealed to the California Supreme Court. The Supreme Court observed, (quoting the U.S. Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio (1968) 392 U.S. 1) that a detention “is a serious intrusion upon the sanctity of the person, which may inflict great indignity and arouse strong resentment, and it is not to be undertaken lightly.” The court then went on to find that when considered under the totality of the circumstances, there was no articulable and reasonable suspicion that Mr. Flores was engaged in criminal activity. “Odd behavior” does not provide reasonable suspicion that Mr. Flores was engaged in criminal activity, nor does Mr. Flores’ location.

While sometimes, considering the context of the totality of the circumstances, nervous or evasive behavior in an area known for criminal activity, may provide reasonable suspicion, here the court found that Mr. Flores’ conduct did not rise to the minimal level of objective justification to detain him. What the officers could have done is approach Mr. Flores and ask him questions allowing them to assess the circumstances. (Of course, Mr. Flores, in such a consensual encounter should have felt free to leave, in which case, his refusal to engage in conversation could not be construed as reasonable suspicion.) The upshot is, what the officers should have done is observe and/or approach Mr. Flores and then if they formed reasonable suspicion, could have detained him. What they could not do is immediately detain him on a modicum of suspicion, which did not satisfy the objectively reasonable standard.

If you think you have been unlawfully detained or arrested, a motion to suppress evidence may end in all charges dismissed against you.  Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg is available for a free consultation to review the facts of your detention and arrest for a potential motion to suppress the evidence. You may contact him at his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at bill@williamweinberg.com.