Law Enforcement Bulletin

Sign up for newsletters and other news
Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > July 2013 > State v. Jennings, Tenth District Court of Appeals (Franklin County)

Law Enforcement Bulletin RSS feeds

State v. Jennings, Tenth District Court of Appeals (Franklin County)

Question: Can an officer generate reasonable suspicion to stop based on many factors that, standing alone, would not create reasonable suspicion?
Quick Answer: Yes, that’s why it’s called “totality” of all the circumstances; you have to look at every permissible factor.

Facts: Columbus Police Officer Ryan Steele was patrolling an area known for narcotic and gang activity. He pulled into an apartment complex about 1 a.m. and noticed a vehicle with its hood up. Rommel Jennings, who was standing near the vehicle, saw Steele, looked panicked, and immediately started walking nervously toward the vehicle. The officer testified that he saw Jennings make a “pitching” or “tossing” motion toward the hood of the car.
Steele got out of his cruiser and started talking to Jennings. He then asked Jennings to step away from the vehicle and sit on the sidewalk because he didn’t know what Jennings had put in the engine bay. Jennings tried to shut the hood, but Steele stopped it. Jennings attempted to close the hood a second time, and Steele let it shut. Having succeeded in closing the hood, Jennings sat on the sidewalk. Officer Steele opened the hood and found a bag of crack cocaine and a crack pipe.
Why this case is important: Although this case stands for a simple proposition that everyone learns in peace officer basic training — that the “totality of the circumstances” means all the permissible circumstances — this is still a good read concerning the nitty-gritty legal details of your profession. This case deals with a split decision. The trial court judge said the officer didn’t have reasonable suspicion. On appeal, two of the appellate judges voted that the officer did, while one voted that he didn’t.
The court spent five paragraphs (10 through 14), a full two pages of the opinion, analyzing exactly when Jennings had been “seized.” Most people might assume Jennings had been seized when the officer asked him to step away from the car and sit on the sidewalk. But the court noted that, even if that request was seen as an order, a person isn’t “seized” if they do not submit to a show of authority. Because Jennings ignored the request and instead attempted to close the hood, he wasn’t yet seized for constitutional purposes. Similarly, although the officer exercised a show of authority by stopping Jennings from closing the hood the first time, Jennings tried and succeeded in closing it the second time. Thus, it wasn’t until Jennings succeeded in closing the hood and then submitted to the officer’s authority by sitting on the sidewalk that he had been “seized.” The court then went into a three-page analysis about what constitutes reasonable suspicion and concluded that Officer Steele had sufficient grounds to make the investigatory stop.
The dissenting judge disagreed, noting, “Police officers make mistakes and sometimes testify in a way to justify what they have done earlier.” Instead, the dissenting judge would have voted to uphold the trial judge’s determination that Officer Steel was not credible and there were no reasonable grounds to justify even a minor intrusion to Jennings’ freedom.
Keep in mind: The law is finicky. In this case, the court spent five pages identifying the precise moment that Jennings was seized and discussing whether there was reasonable suspicion for the stop. To put that in perspective: That’s a 2,000-word discussion on a series of decisions that Officer Steele had to make over the course of a few minutes while talking to a possibly armed suspect. And even then, one judge dissented.
Face it, there’s very little room for error when you’re dealing with a bunch of lawyers. That’s why you have to develop an almost reflexive, instinctual feel for reasonable suspicion and probable cause. You can’t read a 2,000-word legal analysis every time you make a stop, so your gut reaction has to be as good as an appellate judge’s considered deliberation.
Visit the Ohio Tenth District Court of Appeals website to view the entire opinion.