United States v. Slocumb, No. 14-4733 (Published Fourth Circuit, October 22, 1015)

An excellent case published by the Fourth Circuit today.  Authored by Judge Gregory, and joined by Judges Agee and Diaz, the Fourth Circuit affirms the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.  Mr. Slocumb was changing out a child’s car seat in a commercial parking lot that officers were also using as a staging area for an ongoing drug investigation into a house across the street.  Mr. Slocumb had received a call from his girlfriend, Lewis, informing him that her car had broken down.  Admittedly, it was late at night and a well-known drug area. An officer approached Slocumb and Lewis as they were moving the baby car seat.  The officer noticed Slocumb “hurrying” Lewis.  Then, even more nefariously, he did not make eye contact!  And he mumbled!  Obviously the officer needed backup which he then called for.  At some point, the officer asked Slocumb for his name.  Slocumb provided a false name. The officer asked Slocumb if he had anything illegal on him; he said no.  The officer asked for consent to search him; he said no.  Minutes later, an officer asked Lewis (who by this time was sitting in the car with her infant) what Slocumb’s name was, and she replied, “Hakeem.”  Well, the officers recognized the name “Hakeem” in connection with one of their drug investigations!  Busted!  Slocumb was then immediately arrested, and searched.  The officers found $6,000 in cash on him.  After a search of the car, the police found drugs.

In assessing the totality of the circumstances, the district court found the officer had reasonable suspicion, and it relied on these factors:  1) Officer’s awareness of the high-crime area; 2) the lateness of the hour; 3) Slocumb’s presence in the parking lot of a business closed for several hours; 4) Slocumb’s conduct vis a vis, hurrying Lewis, mumbling responses, and avoiding eye contact; and 5) the district court’s conclusion that Slocumb’s conduct seemed “inconsistent” with the explanation for his presence.  The district court reasoned that, had Slocumb truly been helping his girlfriend with her broken-down car, he should have gleefully welcomed the police officer with direct eye contact!  Relying on numerous cases, the Court had no problem finding a lack of particularized suspicion in this case.  The Court especially notes that Slocumb did not undertaken any actions to evade the police officers and acknowledges that even innocent encounters with police officers can be anxiety-producing.  In a phrase I love, the Court reiterates that the Government “must do more than simply label a behavior as ‘suspicious’ to make it so.”  United States v. Massenburg, 654 F.3d 480, 491 (4th Cir. 2011).

Another great case coming from the Fourth Circuit.  It is especially deserving of a good read as it takes care to cite a number of Fourth Circuit cases on search issues.  This case is a great contribution to the criminal defense attorney’s arsenal.