Eleventh Circuit Finds Search Not Forbidden By Fourth Amendment – U.S. v. Griffin

October 17, 2012 by David S. Seltzer

When I am defending people against serious criminal charges, one issue that frequently arises is whether they were subjected to a legal search. A search by law enforcement is the basis for many arrests; in fact, it may be the only basis for a possession crime. But under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, a search must be reasonable, and there is a lot of caselaw dedicated to explaining what is reasonable. When a search is unreasonable, it is illegal and cannot be used as evidence to convict someone. That was the reasoning behind the district court’s decision to exclude evidence in United States v. Griffin, an Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that ultimately reversed that choice. It said the district court did not need to suppress search evidence turned up after law enforcement asked Kareen Rasul Griffin questions unrelated to the reason for the search.

Griffin was stopped by law enforcement officers responding to a call about attempted theft at a children’s clothing store in Jacksonville. A security guard at the store pointed Griffin out, and an officer stopped him. Griffin denied stealing anything, but the officer frisked him anyway and felt what he thought were C-cell batteries in Griffin’s left back pocket. Believing it was odd to carry batteries around, the officer asked Griffin why he was carrying batteries, and Griffin said they were shotgun shells. After determining that Griffin had been convicted of a felony, the officer arrested him. At trial, the district court granted a motion to suppress the statements and search, finding that while the stop was proper, the search might not be, and in any case the questions were unrelated to the purpose of the stop. That made them unreasonable under the Constitution, the district court said, and the “fruits” of the unconstitutional search must be suppressed.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed, finding that the questions didn’t change the permissibility of the encounter. It is undisputed that the officer had the right to stop Griffin, the court said, but Griffin argued that the search was also unreasonable because the officer had no reasonable suspicion that Griffin was armed. Under caselaw, the appeals court said, officers don’t need definitive evidence that someone is armed; the test is whether a reasonably prudent person would be correct to believe there was a safety problem. The officer was working alone at night in a high-crime area, the court noted; he had no specific information about Griffin; Griffin was being evasive; and thefts often involve weapons. Finally, it found that the questions unrelated to the suspected theft were not unconstitutional. It said numerous sister circuits have decided that unrelated questions don’t violate caselaw in themselves. Nor did the time required to ask and answer the questions unreasonably extend the stop, it said. Thus, it reversed the district court and remanded the case.

It is disappointing that the appeals court is willing to set the standard for an illegal search so high. Though Griffin was indeed a felon in possession of ammunition, it was invisible and harmless. Authorities may never have noticed if the officer hadn’t gone on a fishing expedition in Griffin’s pockets. While many theft crimes do involve weapons, many others do not; for example, Florida law distinguishes between robbery and armed robbery. And the opinion doesn’t say Griffin was ever arrested for the underlying attempted theft, which makes me wonder if the suspicion of him was correct. As a criminal defense attorney, and I work hard to ensure that prejudice doesn’t heap extra legal troubles of this kind onto my clients.

If you’re facing criminal charges in Florida and you’d like to talk to an experienced defense lawyer about your rights and your options, call Seltzer Law, P.A., for a free consultation. You can reach us 24 hours a day and seven days a week at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us an email.

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