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If the Police Block My Car, is That Considered a “Seizure”?

The Constitution guarantees your right against unreasonable search and seizure by the police. A “seizure” does not necessarily mean that you have been formally placed under arrest. It refers to any scenario where a “reasonable person” would believe they were not free to leave or felt compelled to respond to police questioning.

Court of Special Appeals Reverses Weapons Conviction Based on Illegal Police Search

A recent unreported decision from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals (CSA), Simpson v. State, is instructive on this point. In this case, the defendant and another person were sitting in a car parked on a street in Prince George’s County. The defendant was sitting in the back of the car.

Two different police officers on patrol each observed the car. One officer pulled up next to the defendant’s car, while the officer parked right behind the vehicle. The officers later testified that as they approached the car, the defendant made “adjustments to his waistband” and he had a visible bulge in that area. The officers decided to conduct a pat down search of the defendant, which revealed he had a firearm.

Prosecutors subsequently charged the defendant with wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun. He was found guilty and received a three-year prison sentence with all but 120 days suspended. The defendant appealed, arguing the police conducted an illegal search of seizure, thereby rendering the gun found on him inadmissible as evidence.

The CSA agreed. On appeal, the prosecution conceded that the officers lacked any “reasonable suspicion” to detain the defendant. After all, he was simply sitting in a parked car, which was not illegal. But the state still defended the search as legitimate on the basis that the defendant had not actually been subject to a “seizure.”

The trial court held that since the defendant was not “afraid” or “feared to leave,” this was effectively a consensual encounter and thus there was no constitutional violation. But as the CSA pointed out, the legal standard is not the defendant’s subject fear–or lack thereof–but rather what a “reasonable person” would think in the defendant’s position. The two officers had effectively blocked the defendant’s vehicle from leaving its parking spot. That turned this “casual encounter” into a seizure.

As the CSA noted, if all the officers had wanted to do was to “initiate a casual conversation,” they could have parked somewhere else on the street and approached the defendant’s vehicle. They did not have to block him in. By taking the actions they did, however, the officers had effectively initiated a seizure of the defendant. And since the prosecution conceded there was no lawful basis for a seizure in the first place, the gun found during that seizure should not have been admitted as evidence against the defendant. The CSA therefore reversed the defendant’s conviction on gun charges.

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This article has been provided by the Law Office of Robert Castro. For more information or questions contact our office to speak to an experienced lawyer at (301) 705-5137.