Unconfirmed Warrants give rise to Reasonable Suspicion

State v. Dawson (ICA April 8, 2009)

Background.  Officers Kang and Pacheco--each riding separately--responded to a call from dispatch to recover an alleged stolen vehicle at an apartment complex.  Officer Kang asked dispatch to run a warrant check on Dawson.  Officer Kang later explained that he asked for Dawson because he was involved with two prior incidents relating to the apartment complex, where Dawson's girlfriend lives, and stolen cars.  Dispatch responded that there was a "possible warrant," which meant that the police computer system revealed an outstanding warrant, but confirmation with an actual, physical warrant was pending.

Officer Pacheco heard the request for the warrant check and dispatch's response that there was a possible warrant.  Officer Pacheco got to the scene first and saw a man standing in the parking lot.  She asked for his name and he said he was "Eddie Dawson."  Officer Pacheco then had him sit down while the "possible warrant" was being confirmed.  It took approximately four minutes for dispatch to confirm the outstanding arrest warrant.

During those four minutes, Officer Pacheco saw Dawson take a glass pipe usually used to smoke crystal methamphetamine out of his pocket and put it in a plastic bag next to him.  Dawson was arrest, and the pipe was recovered.  Dawson attempted to suppress the pipe and the .075 grams of meth inside it, but his motion was denied.

When a Seizure Occurs. Police may temporarily seize or detain a person to investigate possible criminal behavior based on a reasonable suspicion.  State v. Spillner, 116 Hawai'i 351, 357-58, 173 P.3d 498, 504-05 (2007).  Thus, the first question for the ICA was when Dawson was seized.  Not every encounter with the police is a seizure. Only when the 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."  State v. Tsukiyama, 56 Haw. 8, 12, 525 P.2d 1099, 1102 (1974).  Put differently, a defendant is seized only when "a reasonable person would have believed that he [or she] is was not free to leave."  State v. Quino, 74 Haw. 161, 169, 840 P.2d 358, 362 (1992).  A seizure is determined by the totality of the circumstances.  Id.

The Tsukiyama-Quino Spectrum.  The ICA looked to two cases that demonstrate the difference between a "seizure" and mere officer contact.  On one end there is State v. Tsukiyama.  In that case, a police officer approached the defendant who was standing in a crowd of people gathered around a stalled car.  The officer asked the defendant his name and if he knew who owned the car.  The HSC held that not every street encounter with the police is a seizure.  Id. at 12, 525 P.2d at 1102.  Informal questions are a "minimal intrusion of privacy and did not rise to the level of 'seizure' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment."  Id. at 13, 252 P.2d at 1103.  The HSC simply held that "there is no constitutional objection for a policeman merely to inquire of a person on the streets in a proper manner when the individual to whom the questions are addressed is under no compulsion to cooperate."  Id.  This was described as a "mere field interrogation."  Id. at 14, 252 P.2d at 1103.

At the other end there's State v. Quito, in which the HSC examined whether the walk-and-talk routine at the Honolulu Airport arose to a seizure.  Police officers would approach arriving passengers and ask them a series of questions, which gradually became more intrusive and were calculated to lead to requests to consent to search luggage and pat downs.  The HSC held that "once the stop turned from general to inquisitive questioning, a reasonable person . . . would not have believed that he [or she] was free to ignore the officer's inquiries and walk away."  Id. at 173, 840 P.2d at 364.

In this case, the ICA rejected Dawson's argument that he had been seized the moment Officer Pacheco approached and asked for his name.  The ICA explained that Officer Pacheco had no idea that the person she saw was Dawson and that she was just trying to gather some information about the stolen car.  According to the ICA, this was not like the case in Quito, where the questions were targeted to secure incriminating evidence.  The ICA held that Dawson was not detained until Officer Pacheco told him to sit down while the possible warrant was being confirmed.

A "Possible Warrant" Gives rise to Reasonable Suspicion.  The next issue was whether Dawson's seizure was justified by reasonable suspicion.  When it comes to warrant checks, police officers can run a check so long as the check does not prolong the detention beyond the time necessary to perform the underlying investigation.  State v. Barros, 98 Hawai'i 337, 344, 48 P.3d 584, 591 (2002), State v. Silva, 91 Hawai'i 111, 117, 979 P.2d 1137, 1143 (App. 1999), and State v. Ramos, 93 Hawai'i 502, 508, 6 P.3d 374, 380 (App. 2000).  The ICA noted that in those cases the investigating officers "had no information about whether the defendants had outstanding warrants before the defendants were detained."  In this case, however, Officer Pacheco knew there was a possible warrant out for Dawson and that the man she approached identified himself was Dawson before he was detained.  According to the ICA, this was uncharted territory.  Relying on cases from federal jurisdictions--especially United States v. Miller, 382 F.Supp.2d 350, 367-69 (N.D.N.Y. 2005)--and from other states, the ICA held that the officer's knowledge that there was an outstanding warrant for the defendant provided ample reasonable suspicion to detain him.

Raising ArizonaThe ICA pointed out that the other jurisdictions that have addressed this issue held that computer checks revealing "outstanding warrants not only constitute reasonable suspicion to detain, but satisfy the more stringent standard of probable cause to arrest."  If that is indeed the case, then Officer Pacheco did not have to make Dawson sit down and wait for the warrant to be confirmed.  She could have looked to the computer, arrested him immediately upon learning that he was Dawson, and then the pipe would have been found in an inventory search.  But what if the computer results were wrong and the warrant there was no arrest warrant?

That was what happened in Arizona v. Evans, 514 U.S. 1 (1995).  After stopping Evans for driving on the wrong side of the road, police ran a warrant check which revealed an outstanding warrant.  Evans was immediately arrested and the police discovered marijuana.  It turned out, however, that at the time of his arrest, the warrant had been recalled and the arrest was unlawful.  The U.S. Supreme Court held that the unlawful arrest did not justify suppression.  The Court explained that the federal exclusionary rule was designed to deter police misconduct and suppressing evidence despite an officer's good faith belief that there was probable cause would be inconsistent with the underlying purposes of the rule.

It must be noted, however, that the exclusionary rule in Hawai'i is also based on independent, state grounds.  Hawai'i courts have made it clear that the exclusionary rule--under the State constitution--does more than deter police misconduct.  It also serves to prevent invasions of privacy.  State v. Lopez, 78 Hawai'i 433, 896 P.2d 889 (1995).  That is why Hawai'i does not adhere to the good-faith exception pursuant to United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984).  So if indeed there had been probable cause to search, but it later turned out to be an unlawful arrest, then courts still ought to suppress.  This hypothetical does not apply to Dawson's case.  After all, the possible warrant was confirmed.  However, if it is true that a computer search revealing an outstanding warrant provides an officer with sufficient probable cause, then Evans-like scenarios may be in Hawai'i's future.

Judge Foley's Dissent.  A police officer has reasonable suspicion when the officer can "point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant the intrusion."  Spillner at 357, 173 P.3d at 504; Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21 (1968).  Judge Foley did not believe Officer Pacheco could have pointed to such facts.  Judge Foley pointed out that at the suppression hearing, Officer Pacheco cited occasions in which possible warrants were unconfirmed and that in some cases, it could take up to 25 minutes to confirm a warrant.  The State made no attempt to show that a possible warrant was reliable.  Judge Foley was not persuaded by the State's argument that two-thirds of warrants in the computer system are confirmed.  Judge Foley explained these "facts need to be more 'specific and articulable' than an argument on appeal that an intrusion on an individual's liberty will be correct from one-half to two-thirds of the time."

It also appeared that Judge Foley did not believe this case was distinguishable from other cases involving warrant checks.  According to Judge Foley, the circuit court erred in concluding "that a 'possible warrant' provided reasonable suspicion to detain Dawson pending confirmation.  Detaining Dawson beyond the objective of investigating the auto theft matter exceeded that degree of intrusion absolutely necessary under the circumstances of this case.  See State v. Silva, 91 Hawai'i 80, 81, 979 P.2d 1106, 1107 (1999)."


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