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Can Race be a Factor During a Police Seizure? US Supreme Court May Decide.

The Fourth Amendment is one of the most important constitutional rights we have. The Fourth Amendment was added to the constitution out of the Founder’s frustration with so called “general searches” in colonial times. The authorities were allowed to search for anything at any time and the colonists were very frustrated. In the modern time, the Fourth Amendment has been nearly swallowed whole by the endless amount of exceptions. Yet another Fourth Amendment case in pending before the United States Supreme Court in the case of Knights v. United States.

What is at issue in the Knights case?  

The Supreme Court has previously held that if a person is seized under the Fourth Amendment if in view of all the circumstances surrounding that incident, a reasonable person would have believed he was not free to leave. What constitutes a restraint on liberty prompting a person to conclude that he is not free to leave will vary, not only with the particular police conduct at issue but also with the setting in which the conduct occurs.

What happened in the Knights case?

After midnight in January of 2016, police officers in Tampa, Florida began patrolling the Live Oaks neighborhood.

The officers saw Knights with his friend Keaton outside of Knights’ wife’s car listening to music. The officers concluded that Knights was stealing the car. They pulled their patrol car over and shined a flashlight at Knights. Knights did not want to speak with the police and got in the car and rolled the window up. The officers went to the car window and smelled an odor of marijuana.

Knights eventually complied with police, but the police decided to do a narcotics investigation Then the officer instructed Knights to step out of the car and place his hands on the top of the cat. The officers searched the vehicle and found a handgun, rifle, and two firearm cartages. Knights acknowledged that he owned a handgun. Knights was indicted on one count of possession of a firearm and ammunition by a felon. Knights moved to suppress this evidence as fruits of an unlawful seizure. The seizure occurred when the officers parked in a manner that impleaded his ability to drive or walk away.

The judge recommended that this motion be granted because the officers lacked reasonable suspicion to stop Knights. However, the district court judge rejected this and denied the motion to suppress on the grounds that Knights could have abandoned his car or used skilled driving to get around the officers. Knights was sentenced to 33 months in prison. The Eleventh Circuit then held that race is never a factor in seizure analysis.

Most Courts look at a totality of the circumstances test, but the Eleventh Circuit has held that race can never be a factor in a seizure analysis. However, based on race, different people might feel that they are free to leave during a police encounter while others may not. The long history of police abuse towards Black men in particular is an issue when looking at the totality of the circumstances. There no conceivable way anyone in Knight’s position would have felt free to leave after being racially targeted and stopped by two police officers.

Race is an important factor when it comes to the totality of the circumstances in a Fourth Amendment seizure analysis. Courts are divided over whether race should apply, with many courts seeming weary to acknowledge the reality that Black men and people of color in general are overpoliced and often treated unfairly by law enforcement. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has recognized that Black men may believe that they have been seized when other members of society would not and that past injustices inform this belief. Despite accounting for 13.4 percent of the population, Black people comprise 21 percent of all police-civilian encounters 38.6 percent of the federal prison population, and 24 percent of all people shot and killed by police.

Further, the Supreme Court in its Miranda custody analysis has acknowledged that different groups of people have different ideas about when they are free to leave. For example, the Supreme Court has held that children have a different standard under Miranda than adults.

The case of Knights v. United States brings up many sad realities that many people would like to ignore. However, even if this case makes it to the Supreme Court, the conservative supermajority is unlikely to decide it in favor of Knights.

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