A Reasonably Good Week for the Fourth Amendment

This week, two federal court decisions here in D.C. reiterated the importance of the Fourth Amendment in police encounters.

In the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the Court’s opinion in Rodriguez v. United States, declaring that prolonging a traffic stop to initiate a K-9 sniff of a vehicle was unconstitutional. It’s not a revolutionary decision or a watershed moment in the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, but it’s always good to see the Court recognize that there are limits on the police during traffic stops. (Such recognition is not usually the case.) That said, police will still try to find ways to get you to surrender your rights during stops.

Down the street at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote a concurrence in a case that gets to the heart of the problem in Fourth Amendment law today. Because lower courts are not allowed to ignore Supreme Court holdings even when judges think SCOTUS is wrong, Judge Brown had to vote in favor of the government. But in United States v. Gross, concerning D.C.’s roving patrols for illegal firearms in high crime areas, Judge Brown was quite clear when she wrote:

Despite lacking any semblance of particularized suspicion when the initial contact is made, the police subject these individuals to intrusive searches unless they can prove their innocence. Our case law considers such a policy consistent with the Fourth Amendment. I continue to think this is error. Our jurisprudence perpetuates a fiction of voluntary consent where none exists and validates a policy that subverts the framework of Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).

In the absence of any particularized reports, evidence, or suspicions, patrolling officers simply question every likely person they encounter. They “employ[] a simple technique: they ask[] any individual they encounter[] if he or she ha[s] a gun and then watch[] to see if that individual engage[s] in what the officers perceive[] to be suspicious behavior.” If consent to question or search is refused, officers frequently construe citizens’ varied reactions to their probes as rationalizing a Terry stop.

As a thought experiment, try to imagine this scene in Georgetown. Would residents of that neighborhood maintain there was no pressure to comply, if the District’s police officers patrolled Prospect Street in tactical gear, questioning each person they encountered about whether they were carrying an illegal firearm? Nothing about the Gun Recovery Unit’s modus operandi is designed to convey a message that compliance is not required. While viewing such an encounter as consensual is roughly equivalent to finding the latest Sasquatch sighting credible, I submit to the prevailing orthodoxy, but I continue to reject its counterintuitive premise.

With the guise of voluntary consent stripped away, the reality of the District’s regime is revealed. It is a rolling roadblock that sweeps citizens up at random and subjects them to undesired police interactions culminating in a search of their persons and effects. If the Fourth Amendment is intended to offer meaningful protection in the context of Terry stops, the voluntary consent exemption cannot be used to engage with members of the public en masse and at random to fabricate articulable suspicions for virtually every citizen officers encounter on patrol. (Internal citations omitted.)

The state of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence is not good, but cases like these provide a glimmer of hope that the Supremes will come around one of these days. You should read Judge Brown’s full concurrence here.