United States v. Curry

Decision Date15 July 2020
Docket NumberNo. 18-4233,18-4233
Parties UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff – Appellant, v. Billy CURRY, Jr., Defendant – Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit


FLOYD, Circuit Judge:

This appeal presents the question of whether the Fourth Amendment's exigent circumstances doctrine justified the suspicionless seizure of Defendant-Appellee Billy Curry, Jr. The police seized Curry after responding to several gunshots that were fired in or near an apartment complex less than a minute earlier. When the police arrived, they encountered five to eight men—including Curry—calmly and separately walking in a public area behind the complex, away from the general vicinity of where the officers believed the shots originated; several other people, likely visitors or residents, standing around closer to the apartments; and another man walking toward the rear of the officers’ patrol car, who appeared to be favoring one of his arms.

The district court held that exigent circumstances did not justify the suspicionless, investigatory stop of Curry, and so it granted his motion to suppress a firearm and other evidence based on the unreasonableness of the seizure that led to its discovery. We agree with the district court's conclusion. To hold otherwise would create a sweeping exception to Terry v. Ohio , 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). The exigent circumstances doctrine typically involves emergencies justifying a warrantless search of a home, not an investigatory stop of a person, and the few cases that have applied the doctrine in the investigatory seizure context are materially distinguishable. In those cases, the government isolated a discrete area or group of people and engaged in minimally intrusive suspicionless searches in an effort to search for a suspect implicated in a known crime in the immediate aftermath of that crime. Requiring such suspicionless seizures to be narrowly targeted based on specific information of a known crime and a controlled geographic area ensures that the exigency exception does not swallow Terry whole. Because these limiting principles were wholly absent from Curry's stop, we hold that the stop was not justified by exigent circumstances and thus was not reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, we affirm.


Any Fourth Amendment analysis turns on the totality of the circumstances and thus must be grounded on an accurate understanding of the facts. Because neither party disputes the district court's findings of fact—let alone challenges them as clearly erroneous, see United States v. Kehoe , 893 F.3d 232, 237 (4th Cir. 2018)we recite the operative facts from the district court's opinion. See generally United States v. Curry , No. 3:17-cr-130, 2018 WL 1384298 (E.D. Va. Mar. 19, 2018).1


On the night of September 8, 2017, four uniformed officers of the Richmond Police Department (RPD)—Officers Gaines, Fitzpatrick, Janowski, and O'Brien—were patrolling a densely populated area in Richmond, Virginia, when they heard what they thought were five to six gunshots. The officers—all in the same marked car—were on patrol duty in the Creighton Court neighborhood as members of the Focus Mission Team, a division of the RPD dedicated to violent crime and drug suppression. Home to hundreds of families, Creighton Court is a public housing community in the East End of Richmond. The officers were assigned to patrol Creighton Court because there had been six shootings and two homicides within the past three months in that area, with the most recent homicide occurring just eleven days before the incident in question.

It was about 9:00 p.m. when the officers heard the gunshots. Upon hearing the shots, the officers, who were then patrolling in a grass field near the 2100 block of Creighton Court, made a U-turn and began driving toward a housing complex called Walcott Place, where they thought the shots had originated. It took the officers only about thirty-five seconds to arrive behind Walcott Place, which was two-to-three blocks away.

Behind Walcott Place was an open and poorly lit field flanked on two sides by apartment buildings. Approximately five to eight men were walking in and around the field, heading away from where the officers believed the shots were fired. Several people were standing near the apartment buildings. None of the men shown in the body camera footage taken that night were walking alongside one another or talking to one another as they moved away from the complex. Officer Gaines testified that as the patrol car came to a stop, the officers saw a man in a red shirt walking toward the rear of the car, who "appeared to be maybe favoring one of his arms." Id. at *2. Therefore, the officers were "uncertain if he had been shot or not." Id.2

As the officers exited the patrol car, they received dispatch calls corroborating that "random gunfire" had come from Walcott Place. See id. at *2. But they did not receive a suspect description. The officers then fanned out and began approaching different individuals in the field. The officers stopped some of the individuals walking away from the complex and illuminated their waistbands and hands.

Officer Gaines approached Curry and another man wearing a blue jacket, both of whom were separately walking away from the officers. According to Gaines, he was not looking for Curry, specifically, but was looking at everyone's hands to ensure that they did not have a firearm. When he first saw Curry, Gaines testified, Curry had a cell phone in his left hand and was walking without putting his hands in his pockets or in his waistband. Curry made no furtive gestures, nor did he walk at an accelerated pace indicative of flight. Id. at *3.

Gaines instructed the two men to put their hands up, and they complied. Curry stood completely still for about four seconds before pointing toward where the shots had come from and telling the officers that he was looking for his nephew. Gaines instructed Curry to pull his shirt up. Gaines claims he could not get a full view of Curry's waistband and asked him to lift his shirt again. See id. ("Officer Gaines characterized Curry as complying with this command in a ‘lackadaisica[l] manner, ‘nonchalantly pick[ing up] the left side [of his shirt] where [Gaines] could not get a full view of his ... waistband.’ Officer Gaines then ordered, ‘Pick your shirt up ,’ and Curry responded, ‘I'm liftin’ it up.’ " (first three alterations in original) (citation omitted)). Gaines testified that Curry did not comply, but instead turned away.

Unable to visually check for a bulge because of what he deemed noncompliance, Gaines called to Officer O'Brien to help him pat Curry down. Officers stated that Curry remained evasive and prevented them from reaching his right side. Gaines and O'Brien restrained Curry's arms and began to pat him down. Gaines testified that he felt a hard object like the butt of a handgun on Curry's person, and the body camera video shows that Gaines notified the other officers that "It's on him," referring to a firearm. An apparent struggle ensued, and Gaines was never able to fully retrieve the object that he felt before Curry was taken to the ground.

The officers handcuffed Curry and took him into custody. As they handcuffed him, the officers told Curry that they had found his gun. Gaines testified that he found the flashlight that he had dropped during the struggle approximately one to one-and-a-half feet from the location where Curry had been taken to the ground. Next to Gaines's flashlight was a silver revolver.


On October 3, 2017, a grand jury indicted Curry on one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. See 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Curry moved to suppress evidence of the revolver, as well as statements he made after his seizure while in custody. See generally Taylor v. Alabama , 457 U.S. 687, 102 S.Ct. 2664, 73 L.Ed.2d 314 (1982) ; Wong Sun v. United States , 371 U.S. 471, 83 S.Ct. 407, 9 L.Ed.2d 441 (1963). Initially, the government relied solely on the theory that Curry's seizure was a lawful Terry stop and that the officers were justified in later patting down Curry to search for weapons. Later, in requested supplemental briefing, the government argued in the alternative that exigent circumstances allowed for Curry's seizure.

Following an evidentiary hearing, the district court issued a detailed and lengthy opinion granting Curry's motion to suppress. As a preliminary matter, the district court concluded that Curry was seized when he halted and raised his hands upon Gaines's initial command. Curry , 2018 WL 1384298, at *5–9 ; see also United States v. Mendenhall , 446 U.S. 544, 553–54, 100 S.Ct. 1870, 64 L.Ed.2d 497 (1980). Next, it held that the seizure was not a lawful Terry stop, as Gaines possessed no reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity particularized to Curry at the time of Curry's seizure. Curry , 2018 WL 1384298, at *10–12 ; see also Terry , 392 U.S. at 21, 88 S.Ct. 1868 ; United States v. Black , 707 F.3d 531, 539 (4th Cir. 2013). Finally, the district court rejected the government's argument that Curry's seizure was justified by exigent circumstances. Curry , 2018 WL 1384298, at *12–14. Because the district court held that the initial stop was unlawful, it granted Curry's suppression motion without considering whether the officers were justified in frisking Curry. See generally United States v. Robinson , 846 F.3d 694, 700 (4th Cir. 2017) (en banc).

The government filed an interlocutory appeal, in which it effectively abandoned its Terry justification by conceding that Curry's stop was suspicionless. The government only pursues its claim of reasonableness based on exigent circumstances, and that is the sole justification for Curry's seizure that is before us on appeal.

A split panel of this Court reversed the district court's suppression ruling. Se...

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