Christopher James WADE, Appellant v. The STATE of Texas.
-- September 11, 2013
Charles W. McDonald, Waco, TX, Attorneys for Appellant.Alex J. Bell, Assistant District Attorney, Waco, TX, Attorneys for the State.
The Supreme Court has consistently held that a person's refusal to cooperate with a police request during a consensual encounter cannot, by itself, provide the basis for a detention or Terry frisk.1 Because appellant's refusal to cooperate was accompanied only by his extreme nervousness and a game warden's hunch he was up to no good, the warden's stop-and-frisk of appellant violated the Fourth Amendment. We therefore reverse the judgment of the court of appeals that had upheld the stop-and-frisk.2
Appellant, Christopher James Wade, is an electrician who was spending his lunch hour sitting in his work truck in the near-empty parking lot of the Flat Rock public boat ramp off Lake Waco in China Spring, Texas. It was mid-May in Texas, so he had his truck engine running.
Jason Campbell and James Ranft—game wardens for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department—pulled up their boat to the ramp right around lunchtime to investigate fishing violations. Warden Campbell got out and approached appellant's truck. He had noticed its engine was running and “wanted to make sure the occupant was okay.”3 He also thought that the truck was “out of place” and “suspicious” because he did not see a boat or any fishing equipment. Instead, the truck had a large box trailer attached with “Wade Electric” printed on the sides. Warden Campbell said that he would not classify the boat ramp area as a “high crime area,” but he had made some narcotics arrests there and had issued numerous citations for fishing and boating violations.
Appellant rolled his window down, and Warden Campbell asked him if he was okay. Appellant said he was eating lunch, but the warden thought that was a lie because he did not see any “evidence”—food, wrappers, or a cooler—of a lunch. There was “nothing of the kind that would have supported that claim.” When asked, appellant said that he lived “nearby,” but his license, turned over on request, showed that he lived some fifteen miles away in Elm Mott, rather than China Spring, so the warden figured that was a lie, too.4 Appellant explained that he was “looking at purchasing a house close to the boat ramp.” Warden Campbell considered this a third lie. And appellant was overly nervous. Warden Campbell explained that he felt concerned for his safety.
From the onset of the contact, I noticed that his—demeanor was—was one of nervousness. At the point when his story changed about the third time, I asked him if he had any weapons or anything that I should be aware of and he replied with, why are you doing this to me. And I thought that was quite a strange response for someone that was just eating their lunch or taking a break. And I asked a second time if he had any weapons or any contraband on his person that I should know about. And he asked again, why are you doing this. [After he refused to allow a search of his vehicle,] I asked him to step out of the vehicle and explained that I was going to conduct a pat-down for my safety.
As ordered, appellant got out of his truck. Warden Campbell “frisked” him and again asked if there was anything he should know about. Appellant said there was a pipe in the truck. The warden searched the truck and found the pipe and a small amount of methamphetamine. The State filed a felony drug charge, and appellant filed a motion to suppress.
After an evidentiary hearing, the trial judge denied appellant's motion. The trial judge held that the actions Warden Campbell observed created an objective and particularized basis for reasonable suspicion that appellant was engaged in criminal activity. Appellant pled guilty to possession of a controlled substance, was sentenced to one year's confinement in state jail, and appealed the trial judge's ruling on his motion to suppress. The court of appeals affirmed,5 because Warden Campbell observed three “objective facts” that created a reasonable suspicion that appellant was engaged in criminal activity and posed a threat. First, “Officer Campbell became suspicious when Wade changed his story concerning his reason for being at the boat ramp.”6 Second, “Wade appeared very nervous.”7 And third, “Officer Campbell asked Wade two times if he had any weapons, and Wade did not answer the question, instead giving what Officer Campbell considered strange responses.”8
Appellant's petition for review asks whether a reasonable-suspicion determination that criminal activity and potential danger may be derived—almost wholly—from a citizen's refusal to answer questions about what he has in his truck or to permit a search of his truck.9
A. Standard of Review
When reviewing the ruling on a suppression motion, we afford almost total deference to the trial judge's determination of historical facts—if supported by the record.10 Regardless of whether the judge granted or denied the motion, appellate courts view the evidence in the light most favorable to the ruling.11 The prevailing party is afforded the strongest legitimate view of the evidence and all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from it .12 We review de novo a trial judge's application of the law of search and seizure to the facts.13 We will uphold the trial judge's ruling if it is reasonably grounded in the record and correct on any theory of law applicable to the case.14
B. Police–Citizen Interactions
There are three distinct types of police-citizen interactions: (1) consensual encounters that do not implicate the Fourth Amendment; (2) investigative detentions that are Fourth Amendment seizures of limited scope and duration that must be supported by a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity; and (3) arrests, the most intrusive of Fourth Amendment seizures, that are reasonable only if supported by probable cause.15 Police officers are as free as any other citizen to approach citizens to ask for information or cooperation.16 Such consensual encounters may be uncomfortable for a citizen, but they are not Fourth Amendment seizures.17
No bright-line rule governs when a consensual encounter becomes a detention.18 Courts must take into account the totality of the circumstances of the interaction to decide whether a reasonable person would have felt free to ignore the police officer's request or terminate the consensual encounter.19 This is the Mendenhall test.20 If ignoring the request or terminating the encounter is an option, then no Fourth Amendment seizure has occurred.21 But—as the Supreme Court made clear in California v. Hodari D.22 —if an officer through force or a show of authority succeeds in restraining a citizen in his liberty, the encounter is no longer consensual; it is a Fourth Amendment detention or arrest, subject to Fourth Amendment scrutiny.23 The question of whether the particular facts show that a consensual encounter has evolved into a detention is a legal issue that is reviewed de novo.24
C. Reasonable Suspicion
Reasonable suspicion of criminal activity permits a temporary seizure for questioning that is limited to the reason for the seizure.25 A police officer has reasonable suspicion for a detention if he has specific, articulable facts that, when combined with rational inferences from those facts, would lead him to reasonably conclude that the person detained is, has been, or soon will be engaged in criminal activity.26 This is an objective standard that disregards the actual subjective intent of the arresting officer and looks, instead, to whether there was an objectively justifiable basis for the detention.27
The standard also looks to the totality of the circumstances;28 individual circumstances may seem innocent enough in isolation, but if they combine to reasonably suggest the imminence of criminal conduct, an investigative detention is justified.29 “It is enough to satisfy the lesser standard of reasonable suspicion that the information is sufficiently detailed and reliable—i.e., it supports more than an inarticulate hunch or intuition—to suggest that something of an apparently criminal nature is brewing.”30 A person's refusal to cooperate with a police request during a consensual encounter cannot, by itself, provide the basis for a detention.31
As with the question of whether a consensual encounter has become a Fourth Amendment detention, the question of whether a certain set of historical facts gives rise to reasonable suspicion is reviewed de novo.32
D. Terry Frisk
If an officer is justified in believing that a person whose suspicious behavior he is investigating is armed, he may frisk that person to determine if the suspect is, in fact, carrying a weapon and, if so, to neutralize the threat of physical harm.33 The purpose of a Terry frisk is not to discover evidence of crime, but to allow the officer to pursue his investigation without fear of violence.34 But police may not escalate a consensual encounter into a protective frisk without reasonable suspicion that the person (1) has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a criminal offense and (2) is armed and dangerous.35
With that general background, we turn to the facts of this case.
Appellant argues that Warden Campbell did not have reasonable suspicion to order him out of his truck and frisk him because his refusal to answer certain questions was not a legitimate basis for a detention or pat-down. We conclude that the courts below misapplied Terry in allowing appellant's action of standing on his rights to serve as the tipping point in the reasonable-suspicion calculus.
A. The consensual encounter escalated into a detention when Warden Campbell ordered appellant out of the truck for a pat-down.
Warden Campbell testified that their interaction began as a consensual encounter, but that “when he said he was eating lunch and I looked in there and there was no evidence of that and then he gave me the story about living there and I looked at his I.D., that's when he was detained.” Appellant asserts that he was detained after the warden asked him, for a second time, what was in his truck instead of answering appellant's own question of “Why are you doing this to me?” The State's position is the Fourth Amendment detention did not occur until appellant was ordered out of his truck and subjected to the Terry frisk.
The detention test is objective, so neither the warden's uncommunicated state of mind nor appellant's subjective belief controls. When Warden Campbell simply repeated his question about weapons or contraband after appellant asked him why he was asking such a question, appellant again refused to answer; instead, he again asked, “Why are you doing this to me?” Appellant then refused to consent to a search of his truck. Under Hodari D., a Fourth Amendment seizure requires submission to the show of authority.36 And appellant had not yet submitted to Warden Campbell's assertion of authority.37 We agree with the State that appellant was not “seized” until he complied with Warden Campbell's order to get out of his truck for a frisk. At that moment appellant was detained under the Fourth Amendment.
B. At the time of the Terry frisk Warden Campbell did not have (1) reasonable suspicion that something of a criminal nature was afoot, or (2) an objectively reasonable concern for his safety.
On the facts of this case, there is precious little to sustain the legal conclusion that Warden Campbell had reasonable, particularized suspicion of appellant such that a Fourth Amendment detention and nonconsensual frisk were lawful. The lower courts relied on three facts: (1) appellant's “unordinary nervousness,” (2) his “changing story” about why he was at the boat ramp, and (3) his “strange [Why are you doing this to me?] responses” to the warden's questions about weapons and contraband.
The record does not, however, support Warden Campbell's conclusion that appellant “changed his story” about why he was at the boat ramp, and appellant's “strange responses” were simply a citizen's attempt to put an end to a consensual encounter. Nervousness and a refusal to answer an officer's questions are insufficient by themselves to constitute reasonable suspicion, and, in this case, they do not combine to provide the basis for the detention and weapons frisk.
The facts that an officer relies on to raise suspicion that illegal conduct is afoot need not be criminal in themselves; “they may include any facts which in some measure render the likelihood of criminal conduct greater than it would otherwise be.”38 But the totality of the suspicious circumstances that an officer relies on “must be sufficiently distinguishable from that of innocent people under the same circumstances as to clearly, if not conclusively, set the suspect apart from them.”39 None of the circumstances preceding Warden Campbell's order to get out of the truck, even when viewed in the light most favorable to the trial judge's ruling, justified a reasonable suspicion that appellant was involved in criminal conduct.40
1. “Unordinary Nervousness”
Warden Campbell testified that, when he asked appellant questions, his “voice was wavering” and “his vein in his neck [was] beating.” As the warden continued to ask questions, appellant was “acting quite nervous,” and that made Warden Campbell concerned for his safety. Nervousness is not sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion, but nervous or evasive behavior is a relevant factor in determining reasonable suspicion for a Terry stop and frisk.41 However, it is not particularly probative because “most citizens with nothing to hide will nonetheless manifest an understandable nervousness in the presence of the officer.”42 And the more accusatory the questions that an officer asks, the more nervous a citizen legitimately becomes.43
2. “Changing Story”
Appellant told the warden three things: he was having his lunch, he lived nearby, and he was interested in buying property nearby. All lies, according to the warden:
• “his story changed about the third time”;
• “he changed his story three times”;
• “why is this man lying to me”;
• “everyone is nervous when approached by the police. But to the point when you're lying”;
• “when I began asking him about what he was doing there, the lies that he told[.]”
Giving due respect to the instinct of the experienced game warden, we cannot see how appellant's explanations could transform the objectively innocent activity of sitting in a work truck at a public boat ramp during the lunch hour into conduct giving rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The “I am eating lunch, I live nearby, and I am interested in buying property nearby” statements are not even “admittedly odd,”44 much less suggestive of a pretext for criminal activity. “The behavior upon which” Warden Campbell “relied may have seemed odd to [him]. But that is not the issue.”45 What matters are the objective facts that indicate criminal activity, not the officer's characterization of them.46
Warden Campbell agreed that he had no more than a hunch that appellant was lying. On cross-examination he admitted that he had no personal knowledge of whether appellant was telling the truth about whether he had eaten lunch or where he lived. He testified, “I believed that he was lying.” But
an officer and the Government must do more than simply label a behavior as “suspicious” to make it so. The Government must also be able to either articulate why a particular behavior is suspicious or logically demonstrate, given the surrounding circumstances, that the behavior is likely to be indicative of some more sinister activity than may appear at first glance. 47
Because the warden's characterization of appellant's replies as lies is not supported by the record, we disregard the finding that the “changing story” had probative value in the reasonable suspicion analysis.
3. “Strange Responses”
The trial judge did not set out the “strange responses” to the warden's questions in his findings. However, the record makes clear that this is a reference to appellant's “Why are you doing this to me?” questions and his refusal to consent to a search of his truck. The dialogue, as related by the warden's testimony and offense report, went like this:
Warden: Do you have any weapons or anything that I should be aware of?
Appellant: Why are you doing this to me?
Warden: Do you have any weapons or any contraband on your person that I should know about?
Appellant: Why are you doing this to me?
Warden: Can I search your vehicle?
Warden: Step out of your vehicle. I am going to pat you down for my safety.
Such evidence may not serve as the tipping point in a reasonable-suspicion calculus. As the Supreme Court held in Brown v. Texas,48 a refusal to engage in a consensual encounter is not grounds for a detention and pat-down. In that case, two officers saw Brown and another man walk away from each other in an alley once the men noticed the officers' patrol car.49 The officers did not suspect Brown of any specific misconduct, nor did they have any reason to believe that he was armed. Nonetheless, they asked Brown to identify himself and explain what he was doing there. Brown “refused to identify himself and angrily asserted that the officers had no right to stop him.”50 When he continued to protest, Brown was first frisked and then arrested for refusing to give his name and address to an officer “who has lawfully stopped him and requested the information.”51 The Supreme Court held that, because the officers had no reason to suspect Brown of wrongdoing, they had no basis for detaining him.52 In other words, Brown's angry refusal to engage in a “consensual encounter” did not create a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.53
While the Supreme Court has held that a refusal to cooperate with a consensual encounter (or consensual search) is not sufficient by itself to constitute reasonable suspicion, that Court has not held that such a refusal is irrelevant to the Terry-stop calculus. Some courts have found that a “change in course” during a consensual encounter—an abrupt refusal to answer questions, a consent to search some items but not others, or a revocation of a previously granted consent—may support a finding of reasonable suspicion.54 Other courts, however, have held that such a refusal may not be part of the basis for a Terry stop-and-frisk.55 And still others have trod a middle ground.
For example, in United States v. Wilson, the Fourth Circuit was faced with “the question of the effect of a person's unsuccessful attempt to terminate what began as a consensual encounter.”56 Wilson, a deplaning passenger, at first acquiesced to DEA questioning and a search of his bags and person, but eventually balked when the officers wanted to search his coats as well. The officers continued to question him against his will.57 “Despite his best efforts, Wilson was unable to ‘terminate the encounter,’ ‘to ignore the police presence and go about his business,’ or to ‘go on his way.’ “58 The Fourth Circuit held that Wilson's refusal to consent to a further search and his lack of continued cooperation was not a factor to be considered in the reasonable-suspicion calculus.59 The court did not, however, draw a bright-line rule; instead, it disapproved of the search because of the prominence of this factor in the reasonable-suspicion calculus. There was little else to support the detention and search: he purportedly lied about coming from Boston rather than New York, he glanced around the terminal a few times, and he had consented to a search of his luggage and person before getting angry and refusing to cooperate any more. These facts alone did not suffice to justify the seizure.60
We agree with the Fourth Circuit and decline to hold that a citizen's questions or refusal to cooperate with a police request during a consensual encounter can never be a factor in determining whether an investigative stop was justified,61 but it cannot be the prominent factor as it was here. When appellant withdrew his consent to the encounter by demanding to know why he was being targeted and then refusing to consent to any search, Warden Campbell needed some objective, factual justification—outside of appellant's withdrawal of consent—to support the detention. Here, there was only appellant's understandable nervousness and the warden's hunch. These facts, even viewed in the light most favorable to the trial judge's ruling, did not amount to the “minimal level of objective justification” necessary to subject appellant to a forcible stop or a frisk.62
Because Warden Campbell lacked the quantum of suspicion required by Terry to make a forcible stop, he was not entitled to frisk appellant without a reasonable belief that appellant had a weapon and was about to use it.63 This standard was recently applied in State v. Castleberry.64 There, the officer—at the outset of a consensual encounter—did not see Castleberry as a threat, or observe any weapons. But the officer had found Castleberry behind a closed business in a high crime area.65 And when asked for his identification, Castleberry reached for his waistband (as opposed to his pocket where a wallet would normally be kept), an act that could be reasonably construed as reaching for a weapon.66 There was no pre-existing reasonable suspicion, but that suspicion arose based on Castleberry's conduct.
There was no such conduct in this case.67 Warden Campbell's safety concern was based on the three facts discussed above, with the triggering fact being appellant's refusal to answer his questions about weapons or contraband.
I was concerned for my safety at the time. When I asked him if he had any weapons or anything that I should know about, when he gave the reply of, why are you doing this to me, I—like I said, I thought that was quite a strange response and indicative of someone that may have had something that they could hurt me or hurt himself.
Warden Campbell may have thought this was a strange response. But it looks to us as it did to appellant: “The citizen is simply demanding to know what is going on!”68 In another case, a citizen's failure to respond to a direct question about the presence of weapons may be telltale, but in cases involving Fourth Amendment rights, the ultimate test is whether the officer had reasonable suspicion, under the totality of the circumstances, to conclude that appellant was engaged in something of a criminal nature and that he was armed and dangerous. Under our de novo review, these circumstances did not give rise to reasonable suspicion.
Neither nervousness nor a refusal to cooperate with an officer during a consensual encounter are sufficient by themselves to constitute reasonable suspicion. Nor were they sufficient in combination with appellant's statements about his reasons for coming to the boat launch to provide the basis for the detention and frisk. Appellant's statement about the pipe in his truck was derived from the warden's illegal detention and was “fruit of the poisonous tree,” and therefore that statement could not provide probable cause for searching appellant's truck. The trial judge erred in denying the motion to suppress, and the court of appeals erred in upholding that denial. We therefore reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and remand the cause to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
COCHRAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court in which KELLER, P.J., and PRICE, WOMACK, JOHNSON, KEASLER, HERVEY, and ALCALA, J., joined.
MEYERS, J., did not participate.