228 F.3d 524 (4th Cir. 2000), 99-4465, US v. Burton

Docket Nº:99-4465.
Citation:228 F.3d 524
Case Date:September 27, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

Page 524

228 F.3d 524 (4th Cir. 2000)




No. 99-4465.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

September 27, 2000

Argued: May 3, 2000.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Greenville.

Henry M. Herlong, Jr., District Judge. (CR-98-635)

Page 525

Leesa Washington, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Greenville, South Carolina, for Appellant. E. Jean Howard, Assistant United States Attorney, Greenville, South Carolina, for Appellee.

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ON Brief: J. Rene Josey, United States Attorney, Greenville, South Carolina, for Appellee.

Before Niemeyer, Traxler, and King, Circuit Judges.

Vacated and remanded by published opinion. Judge Niemeyer wrote the opinion, in which Judge Traxler joined. Judge King wrote a dissenting opinion.


Niemeyer, Circuit Judge

Kenneth Burton challenges the district court's denial of his motion to suppress evidence of a handgun that was discovered when a police officer reached inside Burton's coat during a "police-citizen encounter." The officer justified his search because Burton refused to respond to the officer's questions and to remove his hand from inside his coat, making the officer "uneasy." We find that the officer's search was not supported by a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and therefore constituted an illegal search. Accordingly, we vacate Burton's conviction based on the evidence thus obtained and remand.


On the afternoon of March 4, 1998, in Laurens, South Carolina, Kenneth Burton was standing at a pay telephone outside the Green Street Mini-Mart when he was approached by four police officers who were in the area serving outstanding warrants. When one of the officers, Detective Tracy Burke, identified himself as a policeman and requested identification from Burton, Burton did not respond. The officers repeated their request several times, but Burton remained mute. The officers then asked Burton to remove his right hand from his coat pocket. When Burton failed to do so, the officers repeated their request. Burton still did not respond.

While the other officers remained facing Burton, Officer Burke moved behind Burton, reached around him, thrust his hand into Burton's coat, and grabbed his right hand. Burton resisted, and a struggle ensued, during which the officers wrestled Burton to the ground. While on the ground, Officer Burke claims that Burton "raised his left side of his body up" and pointed a handgun at Officer Burke, who was lying on top of him. Burton squeezed the trigger three or four times, but the gun was jammed and did not fire. The officers subdued Burton and removed the weapon.

Burton was indicted for unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). He moved to suppress the firearm as the fruit of an illegal search. At the evidentiary hearing before the district court, Officer Burke testified that at the time he approached Burton, he had no reason to suspect that Burton was engaged in criminal activity, but Burton's refusal to remove his hand from his coat made Officer Burke feel "uneasy about our safety being there with him with his hand and no response, you know, towards us." Officer Burke thought that Burton "possibly had a weapon in his pocket or in his hand or in his coat that he was holding on to. It could have been narcotics or maybe [an] alcoholic beverage or something." The district court denied Burton's motion to suppress, finding that the incident was "more in the light of a police-citizen encounter" and that "the officers were entirely within their rights not only to engage in the encounter, but then to take precautionary measures which they took."

A jury subsequently convicted Burton, and the district court sentenced him to 115 months imprisonment. Burton's appeal is limited to review of the district court's order denying his suppression motion.


Burton contends that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when Officer Burke reached inside Burton's coat because this search was supported neither by probable cause nor by the lower standard

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of reasonable suspicion. Burton points out that Officer Burke conceded that the officers were unaware of any existing outstanding warrant against him, that Burton "exhibited no evasive or suspicious behavior and [that] there was no indication that he was at the time engaging in any illegal activity." Burton argues that his"refusal to comply with the orders of the police and his decision not to respond to the questions and commands of the police was in direct response to the illegal actions of the police and cannot serve as a basis for suspicion."

The government argues that during the contact between the officers and Burton, which they characterize as a "police-citizen encounter," the officers acted properly, out of concern for their safety, in determining what Burton had in his pocket. They argue, however, that "Burton chose to stay in a position and act in a way which threatened the safety of both the officers and the public." They maintain that "[o]nly after Burton refused to take his hand away from his pocket did Officer Burke reach around Burton and try to determine what was in Burton's pocket." They also state that when officers confront citizens on the street, they may "conduct a limited search for weapons when a reasonably prudent officer in similar circumstances would believe that his safety or the safety of others was in danger."

We are thus presented with the question whether, in the circumstances presented, Officer Burke's concern for his own safety, as well as the safety of his fellow officers, justified his decision to reach inside Burton's coat during what was, concededly, a routine "policecitizen" encounter.

The applicable principles are well established."Law enforcement officers do not violate the Fourth Amendment by merely approaching an individual on the street or another public place." Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 434 (1991). Police may question citizens without implicating Fourth Amendment protections. See INS v. Delgado, 466 U.S. 210, 216 (1984). Indeed, officers remain free to seek cooperation from citizens on the street without being called upon to articulate any level of suspicion or justification for their encounters. The authority of police officers to initiate such "police-citizen encounters" is the same as, but no greater than, the authority of an ordinary citizen to approach another on the street and ask questions. By the same token, the citizen encountered in this manner has the "right to ignore his interrogator and walk away." Terry v. Ohio , 392 U.S. 1, 33 (1968) (Harlan, J., concurring); see also id. at 34 (White, J., concurring) ("There is nothing in the constitution which prevents a policeman from addressing questions to anyone on the streets. Absent special circumstances, the person . . . may refuse to cooperate and go on his way"); United States v. Sullivan, 138 F.3d 126, 132 (4th Cir. 1998) ("[So] long as a person remains at liberty to disregard a police officer's request for information, no constitutional interest is implicated" (quoting United States v. Black, 675 F.2d 129, 134 (7th Cir. 1982))). Only when an officer, "by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen may we conclude that a `seizure' has occurred." Terry, 392 U.S. at 19 n.16. Thus, police officers may not place their hands on citizens "in search of anything" without "constitutionally adequate, reasonable grounds for doing so." Sibron v. New York, 392 U.S. 40, 64 (1968).

A police officer may elevate a police-citizen encounter into an investigatory detention only if the officer has a"reasonable suspicion supported by articulable facts that criminal activity `may be afoot,' even if the officer lacks probable cause." United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7 (1989). Reasonable...

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