Oral Argument Preview: The Contours of a Terry Stop. State of Ohio v. Jaonte Hariston.

On January 29, 2019, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case State of Ohio v. Jaonte D. Hairston, 2017-1505. At issue in the case is whether the reasonable suspicion standard, set forth in Terry v. Ohio, was satisfied during the search and questioning of Jaonte Hairston.

Case Background

Officer Samuel Moore and his partner, while responding to a domestic dispute, heard gunshots coming from what they believed was the nearby elementary school, which was just a few minutes drive away. Upon arrival, the officers saw only Jaonte Hairston as he was walking away from the school. The officers got out of the cruiser with guns drawn and ordered Hairston to stop. Officer Moore questioned Hairston about the gun shots, asked Hairston if he had any weapons, and told Hairston to put his hands behind his back. The officers performed a “pat-down” search. Hairston told the officers he had a weapon, a semi-automatic pistol.

Hairston was later indicted and charged with violation of R.C. 2923.12, carrying a concealed weapon. Hairston filed a motion to suppress the evidence which, according to Hairston, was obtained by an unconstitutional search of his person. Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge David Cain overruled Hairston’s motion to suppress, finding there was reasonable suspicion for the stop and pat-down search. The evidence obtained by the search was admitted. After entering a plea of no contest, Hairston was found guilty of violating R.C. 2923.12 and received a sentence of community control. Hairston appealed the denial of the suppression motion.

On appeal, the Tenth District, in a unanimous opinion written by Judge Horton, and joined by Judges Brown and Luper Schuster, reversed the decision of the trial court. The Tenth District held that the totality of the circumstances did not justify the stop or search of Hairston. Hairston did not exhibit any typical indications that would be expected of someone engaged in wrongdoing. His nervousness was not accompanied by evasive behavior, answers, or body language. Hairston cooperated fully with the officers and answered their questions truthfully. Further, none of the surrounding contextual factors support the assertion that reasonable suspicion existed. Simply being in a high-crime area is not enough to support a stop unless additional factors can be shown to demonstrate particularized suspicion of a particular individual. Because Hairston’s behavior and the surrounding circumstances were insufficient to establish reasonable suspicion, the evidence should have been suppressed. The state appealed.

Votes to Accept the Case

Yes: Justices O’ Donnell, Kennedy, Fischer, and French.

No: Chief Justice O’Connor, and Justices DeWine and DeGenaro

Key Statutes and Precedent

United States Constitution, Amendment IV (The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.)

R.C. 2923.12 (No person shall knowingly carry or have a concealed deadly weapon other than a handgun.)

Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968) (When police officers have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has just occurred or is about to occur they may engage in a limited search of a person to check for weapons. Any such search must be reasonable given the totality of the circumstances and need not meet the higher standard of probable cause.)

United States v. Cortez, 499 U.S. 411 (1981) (Reasonable suspicion means a suspicion particularized for a given person or persons. To satisfy the particularity requirement, two elements must be met before a stop is permitted. First, the assessment must be made on the totality of the circumstances. Second, the assessment must raise a suspicion that a particular individual is engaged in wrongdoing.)

INS v. Delgado, 466 U.S. 210 (1984) (A reasonable person is aware that the mere act of questioning does not constitute a detention for purposes of the Fourth Amendment.)

State v. Bobo, 37 Ohio St.3d 177 (1988) (The propriety of an investigative stop by a police officer must be viewed in light of the totality of the surrounding circumstances. When considering the totality of the circumstances, the officer must rely on specific and articulable facts which would lead a reasonable officer to conclude a temporary stop is necessary.)

State v. Batchili, 2007-Ohio-2204 (The reasonableness of a detention is based on the circumstances as a whole and may not be examined individually for unreasonableness. The circumstances will not be deemed unreasonable even if they are deemed to have innocent explanations after the fact.)

State’s Argument

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits warrantless searches and seizures unless an exception applies. An investigative stop, or Terry stop, is one common exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. A Terry stop permits an officer to stop an individual if there is reasonable suspicion that criminal activity has occurred or is imminent. Such stops must be viewed in light of the totality of the circumstances and through the eyes of “the reasonable and prudent police officer.” Yet, a Terry stop does not require proof that a crime has actually occurred; it is simply a minimal intrusion to allow officers to investigate further. This present case falls squarely within this general exception to the Fourth Amendment.

In this case, the facts and circumstances support a finding of reasonable suspicion. The location was one known for crime involving drugs, violence, and guns. It was dark. The officers arrived no more than sixty seconds after hearing gunshots in the area. Hairston was the only person in the area when the officers arrived, and he was nervous when talking with the officers. Hairston confirmed that he heard gun shots and, when asked, said he had a gun in his jacket pocket. These circumstances, combined with the officers’ training, fully justified further investigation. Accordingly, it was proper to conduct a Terry stop and question the only person in the vicinity of recent gun shots. Courts across the country have accepted similar circumstances as sufficient to support reasonable suspicion. This Court should not deviate from these accepted standards.

When engaging with individuals believed to be armed and potentially dangerous, an officer is permitted to take the necessary steps to verify and mitigate the danger to himself. Under Terry, an officer may mitigate such danger by keeping his weapon at the ready and performing brief but complete restrictions of a person’s movement even though such restrictions temporarily interfere with the person’s liberty. Such reasonable and limited uses of force are necessary to ensure the safety of the officers and the public. Responding officers are, therefore, justified in displaying their weapons at a scene when gunshots were recently heard. The Tenth District’s decision would prevent law enforcement from conducting Terry stops in tense situations and instead require more than reasonable suspicion to stop the sole person in the area where shots were fired.

Finally, a police officer is not required to exclude all possibility of a person’s innocence before performing a Terry stop. Ohio courts have reaffirmed this point on numerous occasions saying that although there may be innocent explanations for an officer’s suspicion, this does not mean that the officer’s suspicion was unreasonable. When all context has been examined in its totality, it is clear that reasonable suspicion was present in this case and that the officers’ stop of Hairston was justified under the Terry exception to the Fourth Amendment. The decision of the Tenth District should be reversed.

Hairston’s Argument

Reasonable suspicion must be established objectively, not by an officer’s subjective opinion. The Supreme Court has held that authorities must have a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular individual stopped by its agents. Without satisfying these objective criteria, a Terry stop will fall short of the reasonable suspicion standard and violate the Fourth Amendment. In this case, the State failed to satisfy the needed criteria. Therefore, the search and seizure of Mr. Hairston was unconstitutional, and all evidence obtained from the search should be suppressed.

In the present case, no particularized suspicion was formed to the degree necessary to detain a person because the officers had no particularized information on which to base their suspicion. The officers had no description of the supposed perpetrator, no specific or particular information regarding the area of the alleged criminal activity, and no information about the direction the offender was fleeing. Such information is necessary to establish reasonable suspicion before any Terry stops can be made. The suspicion must be created based on objective criteria and information obtained before any Terry stops or searches can be executed.

Suspicious or erratic behavior can also be used to support an officer’s reasonable suspicion claim. However, Hairston was not engaged in any suspicious behavior. He was simply walking along, in a residential neighborhood, talking on his cellphone. His actions at the time were entirely lawful and ordinary. Similarly, Hairston did not engage in any suspicious or furtive behavior when the officers approached. In fact, Hairston complied with the officers’ commands and answered the officers’ questions. When examined objectively, Hairston’s behavior provided no reasonable suspicion he was engaged in criminal activity. He was stopped simply on an unarticulated hunch, not particularized suspicion.

Additionally, Officer Moore possessed no specialized training or knowledge which would support inferring criminal conduct from Hairston’s innocent actions. Therefore, in the absence of any particularized knowledge or identifying information, it was unreasonable for the police to forcibly seize Hairston. Under Federal and Ohio precedent, a Terry seizure based on “shots fired” can be unconstitutional without additional indicia to support the stop of a particular individual. There is no shots-fired exception to the Fourth Amendment, and simply being in the general vicinity where gunshots are heard is not enough for a Terry seizure. Because Officer Moore possessed no objective indicia to support his stop and seizure of Hairston his actions were unconstitutional.

Finally, the officers failed to utilize other, less intrusive, means at their disposal when dealing with Hairston. They could have simply asked questions, asked for consent to search Hairston’s person, and then, if reasonable suspicion arose, seized Hairston. This contrasts with the State’s proffered alternatives to either perform the search and seizure immediately or walk away. Other means were available. None of those means were exercised. Accordingly, Officer Moore performed an unconstitutional search and seizure of Mr. Hairston. Therefore, the judgement of the Tenth District should be affirmed.

State’s Proposed Proposition of Law

When officers are responding to very recent gunfire in an area known for criminal activity, it is reasonable for the officers to have their weapons drawn and to briefly detain the only individual seen in the area.

Hairston’s Proposed Counter Proposition of Law

Police have no authority to detain a person, at gunpoint, to investigate an offense of discharging a firearm within the city limits, a third degree misdemeanor, when they have no description of the suspect, the direction he was heading, or any other particularized information linking the person to the misdemeanor offense other than he was one of hundreds of individuals in the densely populated area of about a square mile in size.

Amicus in Support of the State

The Fraternal Order of Police, Capital City Lodge No. 9 (“FOP”) filed a brief in support of the State. The FOP urges the court to reverse the decision of the Tenth District because it failed to examine the facts with proper deference to the training and experience of the officer. When proper deference is afforded, it is clear that Officer Moore exercised reasonable judgment for his safety and the safety of others by effectuating a Terry stop. When experienced police officers immediately respond to an area after hearing shots fired, and find only one person there, they have reasonable suspicion to stop that person.

Amici in Support of Hairston

The Office of the Ohio Public Defender, the Hamilton County and Montgomery County Public Defender Offices, the Juvenile Justice Coalition, The Ohio Chapter of the National Laws Guild, The Ohio Justice and Policy Center, and the Friedman and Gilbert law firm filed a joint brief in support of Hairston.

These amici stress the importance of Terry’s overarching concern for reasonableness which must be addressed prior to any examination of the particular methods employed by police. Mere presence does not constitute reasonable suspicion. Because the officers in this case operated in the absence of any additional background information—other than hearing a gunshot somewhere nearby—their subsequent detention and search of Hairston was improper. Further, the standards the State seeks to rely on, such as an officer’s training, is improper in this case. The overarching concern with reasonableness and the improper standard the State relies on to justify its search warrant a finding for Hairston.

Student Contributor: Paul Taske