AUTHOR’S NOTE: The BlueSheepDog Crew strives to present precedent-bearing cases from the Federal Courts, or State Supreme Courts to help officers education themselves on the latest interpretations of laws and Constitutional actions. However, we do not present ourselves to be legal representatives in any way, and offer these Court decisions for informational purposes only. Though the decisions of the Courts are presented, we recommend each reader to consult with their local Judicial officers and their Command Staff before taking action in regards to a case brief presented here.
The United States 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals covers Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Stiegel v. Collins was decided by the U.S. 3rd Circuit on December 9, 2014. Though each Federal Circuit governs the actions of officers within that Circuit alone, each Federal Appeals Courts pay heavy attention to rulings in other Circuits, making the decision in one important nation wide.
At hand in this case was the legality of an officer pointing his sidearm at a person subjected to a Terry stop. However, to fully understand the principles of the Stiegel v. Collins, officers must fully understand the fundamentals of stop & frisk codified by Terry v. Ohio.
Stop & Frisk
Terry v. Ohio was one of the most important law enforcement cases decided by the United States Supreme Court. A Cleveland Police detective stopped and frisked three men he observed pacing, looking into, and acting suspiciously outside of a business. The officer testified that he believed the three were preparing to conduct an armed robbery of the business.
The U.S. Supreme Court had just decided Mapp v. Ohio in 1961, that evidence of a crime seized in violation of Bill of Rights protections, was strictly inadmissible at trial. In Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court decided that the officer possessed enough reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to warrant a stop, and that because the criminal activity involved a potential violent act (armed robbery), the officer was allowed to “frisk”, or pat down, the outer clothing of the suspects.
It is paramount to understand that a “frisk” is a very limited search – only “patting” down the outer clothing. However, unlike the controversial NYPD policy of stop & frisk that became a matter of routine, the Supreme Court ruled certain criteria must be met to uphold the protections of the 4th Amendment.
Stiegel v. Collins
This case presents a great value to officers in understanding not only reasonable suspicion, but reasonable force during a Terry Stop as well. The heart of the case revolves around the reasonableness and legal authority of an officer to point a firearm at suspects during a Terry stop.
The background of the case involves Stiegel hunting with his friend Majcher on private property. The property was located in North Strabane Township, Pennsylvania, and both men were licensed to hunt and had no restrictions on possessing firearms. At around 2300 hours, the men were contacted by Peters Township Police Officer Collins (Peters Township neighbors North Strabane Township).
Prior to the contact, Officer Collins responded on a reported domestic disturbance. While en route to the call he noticed a single vehicle parked near a pull-off on a rural road. The officer would later report that the vehicle’s presence seemed both “unusual” and “suspicious” to him for the following reasons:
- the vehicle was parked several hundred yards away from any residences
- at nighttime in a rural, unlit area
- in an area where Collins himself had encountered criminal activity in the past
- the owner of the land where the car was parked had previously complained to Collins about trespassing and other illegal activity occurring on his property.
In addition, the owner of the private land had previously asked Officer Collins to “keep an eye out” for trespassers and other criminal activity (a form of passive call for service).
After completing the domestic violence investigation, Officer Collins decided to investigate the suspicious vehicle. As he approached the vehicle in his squad car, he observed Majcher sitting on the hillside. Majcher was wearing camouflage, and had a shotgun on his lap that was pointed in Collins’s general direction. Officer Collins stated that he was concerned that Majcher was either preparing for a home invasion or to commit suicide (both violent acts).
Initial Contact and Firearm Display
When Collins pulled his squad car next to the stopped vehicle he did not activate the squad car’s emergency lights or announce himself as an officer. However, Officer Collins believed that Majcher surmised that he was a law enforcement officer.
As Officer Collins approached Majcher to investigate, he ordered him to place the shotgun on the ground. Rather than complying with Collins’s request, Majcher stood up and began walking towards Officer Collins holding his shotgun in a vertical position. Officer Collins repeated his command for Majcher to place his weapon on the ground, and at the same time withdrew his sidearm and pointed it at Majcher.
Majcher finally complied, placing his shotgun on the ground, and approaching the police car with his hands raised. Majcher identified himself, stated that he and Stiegel were fox-hunting, and claimed to have the property owner’s permission.
When Majcher mentioned Stiegel, Officer Collins scanned the field using his flashlight. He observed Stiegel holding a shotgun, and he aimed his sidearm at Stiegel warning him to drop the shotgun or he would be shot. Stiegel complied, and when Officer Collins observed both men appeared to be cooperating with his commands he re-holstered his sidearm. Officer Collins examined the men’s identification, hunting licenses, and determined that they were in fact hunting legally. He then released both men without any further action after about 5-10 minutes.
Complaint and Law Suit
After the encounter, Stiegel made formal and informal complaints against Officer Collins with the Peters Township Police Department. The department’s internal investigation concluded that Officer Collins did not violate any department policies in his interaction with Stiegel and Majcher. Stiegel then filed a three-count Complaint in Federal District Court alleging violations of his constitutional rights.
In Stiegel’s deposition, he testified that he never saw a gun pointed at him because of the glare from Collins’s flashlight. When Stiegel approached Officer Collins and Majcher, the officer had determined that both men were complying with his requests and re-holstered his firearm before Stiegel reached his car. Both parties agreed that the entire investigation lasted only 5-10 minutes, neither Steigel nor Majcher was issued a citation, and the two men were legally hunting on the premises that evening.
The Federal District Court granted summary judgment for the township and the officer, prompting Stiegel to appeal to the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.
Stiegel’s appeal centered on three complaints:
- Whether the officer’s stop of Stiegel amounted to a de facto arrest
- Whether the officer used excessive force when he pointed his gun at Stiegel
- Whether the township is liable to Stiegel for authorizing the officer’s actions.
Decision of U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals
1. Whether the officer’s stop of Stiegel amounted to a de facto arrest?
The 3rd Circuit noted that officers need reasonable suspicion of criminal activity in order to briefly detain a person to investigate, and quoted heavily from Terry v. Ohio – “It must be recognized that whenever a police officer accosts an individual and restrains his freedom to walk away, he has ‘seized’ that person.” Investigatory, or Terry, stops must be justified by reasonable suspicion, measured analyizing the “totality of the circumstances” surrounding the investigatory stop.
To establish reasonable suspicion, police “must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant [the seizure].” (Referencing United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7 (1989) (quoting United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417 (1981)). Reasonable suspicion is a less demanding standard than probable cause, yet it still requires more than an officer’s mere suspicions or hunches.
In this case, both parties agree that Stiegel was detained. Steigel argued that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion, and argued that when Officer Collins pointed his gun at him, it amounted to an arrest without probable cause.
The Court stated there is no “bright-line rule” that makes an officer’s display of a firearm automatically turn an investigatory stop into an arrest. Heavily weighing on the Court’s opinion was the fact no other elements of a typical arrest were present. Officer Collins did not handcuff the men, or issue them a citation, and the entire encounter lasted 5-10 minutes.
The officer’s explanation into his suspicions of the vehicle were specific and reasonable. These facts provided the officer with sufficient reasonable suspicion to briefly detain Majcher and Stiegel to investigate and confirm or dispel his suspicion about criminal activity.
Ruling on #1 – Based upon the facts, the 3rd Circuit agreed with the District Court in awarding Summary Judgement to Officer Collins.
2. Whether the officer used excessive force when he pointed his gun at Stiegel?
Here the 3rd Circuit used the objective reasonableness test under Graham v. Connor to evaluate the use of force issue. The Supreme Court articulated three factors that serve as guideposts for determining whether the use of force was reasonable in any given case:
- the severity of the crime at issue
- whether the suspect poses an imminent threat to the safety of the police or others in the vicinity
- whether the suspect attempts to resist arrest or flee the scene.
The 3rd Circuit has also considered other relevant factors, including “the possibility that the persons subject to the police action are themselves violent or dangerous, the duration of the action, whether the action takes place in the context of effecting an arrest, the possibility that the suspect may be armed, and the number of persons with whom the police officers must contend at one time.”
When applying the facts of this case to Graham v. Connor, the first factor was the least clear, because Officer Collins could only speculate on a potential crime and it was unknown how long he had considered those threats. However, the Court stated that the second and third factors from Graham, where much more clear in this case. Officer Collins was outnumbered by two men armed with shotguns, and it was certainly reasonable to believe they posed a serious threat. On the third factor, Majcher, armed with a shotgun, did not immediately comply with Officer Collins’s command to place his weapon on the ground.
In further consideration, the court found in Officer Collins’s perspective, there was a possibility that Stiegel and Majcher were violent or dangerous, as he came across them at night, in a remote location that he associated with criminal activity. Finally, neither suspect was arrested, and the entire encounter between Collins and the two men lasted only five to ten minutes.
The 3rd Circuit reviewed several other Circuits that held it is not a constitutional violation for police to point a gun at an individual who poses a reasonable threat of danger or violence to police. One example occurred where an officer was alone with three individuals suspected of criminal activity, Courson v. McMillian, 939 F.2d 1479, 1483-84, 1496 (11th Cir. 1991). There, because the officer was outnumbered and the individuals were belligerent, the 11th Circuit found the officer was justified in displaying his weapon.
The court also examined cases where courts have held that pointing guns at suspect was not reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The court found that it is a constitutional violation for a police officer to point a gun at an individual who does not pose a reasonable threat of danger or violence to police.
Other cases have found excessive force where officers train their guns on compliant adults who pose no threat to the safety of the police. For example, the 7th Circuit found excessive force where an officer, in the course of executing a search warrant based on a nonviolent crime, “wield[ed] a 9-millimeter submachine gun, which he used to detain various people at the search site.” Baird v. Renbarger, 576 F.3d 340, 342, 344-45 (7th Cir. 2009).
Ruling on #2 – After analysis of the factors from Graham v. Connor, and cases on both sides of the issue of gun pointing, the 3rd Circuit held Officer Collins was justified in pointing his gun at both Majcher and Stiegel while he “assessed and gained control over the situation.”
3. Whether the township was liable for authorizing the officer’s conduct?
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that courts cannot “authorize[ an] award of damages against a [municipality] based on the actions of one of its officers when in fact the jury has concluded that the officer inflicted no constitutional harm.” City of Los Angeles v. Heller, 475 U.S. 796, 799 (1986) (per curiam).
Since the 3rd Circuit found that Stiegel had not suffered any constitutional harm at the hands of Officer Collins, “the fact that the departmental regulations might have authorized the use of constitutionally excessive force is quite beside the point.”
So in essence, since the officer did not violate the constitution, the township cannot be liable since the plaintiffs did not suffer a violation.
Final Judgement – The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the district court to grant Summary Judgement and dismiss the case against Officer Collins and Peters Township.
Important Stop & Frisk Requirements
- The officer must articulate specific observations that would lead any reasonable officer to believe that a criminal act had occurred, is occurring, or is about to occur to justify a temporary stop of a suspect to investigate further.
- To establish reasonable suspicion, police “must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant [the seizure].(This can be the nature of the suspected crime, awkward bulges in clothing, target touching, etc.)
- A simple “hunch” by the police officer does not meet the level required by the 4th Amendment to warrant or justify a stop or frisk of any kind.
- “Frisks” under Terry v. Ohio involve open-handed “patting” of the outer clothing only. This process is meant to allow the officer to reasonably ascertain if the person is armed, by giving an immediate recognition or not of something in the shape and feel of a weapon.
- “Frisks” do not allow the officer to manipulate the contents of pockets, through grabbing, as that constitutes a search requiring probable cause.