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The case: State of Wisconsin v. James Timothy Genous
Majority: Justice Brian Hagedorn (7 pages), joined by Justices Annette K. Ziegler, Patience Roggensack, and Rebecca Grassl Bradley
Dissent: Justice Rebecca F. Dallet (10 pages), joined by Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Jill J. Karofsky
The question in this case is whether a vehicle stop was supported by reasonable suspicion of drug activity. Examining the totality of the circumstances, we hold the stop was lawful and reverse the court of appeals.
In mid-August 2016, the West Allis Police Department circulated an intra-department email regarding K.S., a known heroin and narcotics user who previously had worked with the department. The email said that K.S. was no longer working with the department but officers were to “keep an eye on her because she does obviously still use.” Two weeks later, around 3:30 a.m., West Allis Patrol Officer Adam Stikl sat in an unmarked squad car near K.S.’s single-family house on a residential street.
Around 3:36 a.m., James Timothy Genous parked his car in front of K.S.’s house and turned off the headlights. A woman emerged from the house, got in the front passenger seat, and after 10 or 15 seconds left the vehicle and went back into the house. Genous turned the headlights on and drove away.
Stikl observed that the woman who sat briefly in Genous’s car matched K.S.’s physical description. He also knew from information at the department that the residential area had a reputation for drug-trafficking activity. Based on his observations and training, Stikl thought he had witnessed a drug transaction.
Stikl followed Genous for three blocks and executed a traffic stop, which uncovered a handgun in Genous’s car.
Genous was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon. He moved to suppress the handgun, challenging the legality of the stop. The circuit court denied the motion, but the court of appeals sided with Genous.
Police officers are allowed to execute an investigatory stop, known as a Terry stop to briefly detain someone to investigate possible criminal behavior. For a valid Terry stop, police must have reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed, is being committed, or is about to be committed.
Reasonable suspicion must be supported by specific and articulable facts. While it is a low bar, a mere hunch is insufficient. Yet “officers are not required to rule out the possibility of innocent behavior before initiating a brief stop.” The question is, “What would a reasonable police officer reasonably suspect in light of his or her training and experience?”
A reasonable suspicion determination is based on the totality of the circumstances. We focus not on isolated, independent facts, but on “the whole picture” viewed together.
In this case, Officer Stikl suspected that the interaction he witnessed in Genous’ car was a drug deal. The facts show that his suspicion was objectively reasonable. Informed by his training, experience, and department communications, Officer Stikl could reasonably infer quite a bit about the events he observed that night. He knew that drug transactions often occur during brief exchanges in vehicles, which was consistent with the 10-15 second contact in Genous’ car. He also knew that a brief meeting in a vehicle at 3:36 a.m., immediately after the vehicle’s headlights are turned off, and in an area with a reputation for drug-trafficking, are potential indicators of illegal activity. And perhaps most significantly, Officer Stikl had good reason to believe that the woman Genous met in his vehicle was a known drug user with whom his department had a documented history. All these factors, viewed collectively in the eye of a trained and experienced law enforcement officer, support the conclusion that Officer Stikl reasonably suspected a drug transaction had occurred.
Genous contests this conclusion largely by isolating various factors, attacking them one by one, and then excluding each factor from the totality-of-the-circumstances analysis. We reject “this sort of divide-and-conquer analysis.” It is true that a citizen visiting a vehicle at night does not automatically constitute grounds for law enforcement to intervene, nor do officers have a green light to detain and question anyone who has a short conversation with a known drug user. But the reasonable suspicion test is not an exercise in evaluating individual details in isolation. It is the whole picture, evaluated together, that serves as the proper analytical framework.
Considering the totality of the circumstances, we hold that a reasonable law enforcement officer knowing what Officer Stikl knew and seeing what he saw would reasonably suspect that the short-term contact he witnessed in Genous’ car was a drug transaction. His investigatory stop of Genous’ vehicle therefore complied with the Fourth Amendment. We reverse the court of appeals’ conclusion to the contrary and remand to the court of appeals to address Genous’ additional arguments not presented to this court.
The record contains insufficient particular facts, as opposed to generalized suspicions and hunches, that Genous had committed or was about to commit a crime. It appears that Genous’s presence in an alleged “high-drug-trafficking area” played a disproportionate role in the circuit court’s reasonable-suspicion analysis, coloring those general hunches as concrete suspicions. Allowing that designation to so heavily influence the analysis—particularly when it is unsupported by any empirical evidence—continues a troubling erosion of the Fourth Amendment’s particularized-suspicion requirement. I therefore respectfully dissent.
The circuit court here found the following facts:
The record evidence...undermines that conclusion that Genous was engaged in drug trafficking. Regarding the generic fact that “drug transactions often occur during brief exchanges in vehicles,” Officer Stikl testified that neither he nor the West Allis Police Department had any information that Genous’s car was “used to transport drugs,” “used by a known drug dealer,” or connected to a known drug user. As for this alleged “exchange,” Officer Stikl testified that he could not “see what was going on inside” Genous’s car. He testified that he saw no “physical contact” of any kind between Genous and the woman who got into his car, let alone an “exchange” that would resemble a drug transaction. Officer Stikl stated that he did not see the woman carrying anything on her way to or from Genous’s car. He further admitted that drug transactions do not occur only at certain hours.
Even Officer Stikl’s “identification” of the woman as K.S., a “known drug user,” is more generic than particular to Genous. Officer Stikl testified that, prior to this night, he had had no prior personal contact with K.S. – he had not even seen her picture. He testified that he “recognized” the woman as K.S. based on her “physicals” and that her address matched the house in front of which Genous had parked. It is unclear what Officer Stikl meant by “physicals,” but the only specific identifying information he testified to was that K.S. was a “white female.” He also testified that he did not know whether K.S. was the only white female who lived in her house. And so the only “particular” fact on which Officer Stikl relied—that the woman who got into Genous’s car was a drug user—was not a fact at all; it was just a hunch. Thus, none of the individual facts reveals anything particular to Genous that gives rise to reasonable suspicion.
Even assessed collectively, these facts reveal nothing concrete and articulable suggesting that Genous engaged in criminal behavior. The Fourth Amendment does not give the police “free license to stop...anyone” who shows up at the house of a person who previously used drugs. The Fourth Amendment requires particularized suspicion and we have none here.
Genous’s case illustrates two problems with the label “high-crime area.” First, the label can cloak general hunches as particularized suspicion. In this way, a location's characteristics may play a disproportionate role in a reasonable-suspicion analysis, thus running afoul of Illinois v. Wardlow. And second, it is unclear what the term “high-crime area” actually means, making it difficult for circuit courts to know how much weight to give a location’s characteristics in any particular analysis. We should therefore adopt objective criteria for evaluating an assertion that an area is high in crime.
Both problems were on display here. The only evidence in the record that this area of West Allis (the 1600 block of South 65th Street) was a high-drug-trafficking area is Officer Stikl’s testimony that there had been a single recent incident of “drug activity” two blocks south and five blocks west of where he stopped Genous. One incident of an unknown nature occurring roughly half a mile away hardly qualifies this area as a high-drug-trafficking area. Yet that may be all it took to cast Genous’ conduct as suspicious. And, as discussed above, nothing about Genous’ conduct alone was reasonably suspicious. Genous briefly met in his car with a woman who may have been a drug user, in front of that woman’s house. The police saw nothing that resembled an exchange and they had no information that Genous or Genous’s car had been involved in any drug transaction. Thus, the record evidence suggests that Genous’s location was more than just a “relevant” factor for whether his behavior was suspicious; it was determinative....
"One incident of an unknown nature occurring roughly half a mile away hardly qualifies this area as a high-drug-trafficking area. Yet that may be all it took to cast Genous’ conduct as suspicious." – Justice Rebecca F. Dallet
A person’s location may be relevant to a reasonable-suspicion analysis. But for courts to know exactly how a person’s location is relevant in a particular case, they must consider how that location is defined, especially when considering a vague term such as “high-crime area.” What is the “area” the court is considering? Is it five blocks? Ten? As for what it means to be “high crime,” how many incidents of crime were there and how recently did those incidents take place? Without a generally accepted understanding of what “high-crime area” means, its definition (and its boundaries) will shift from court to court. Such a fluid concept injects ambiguity into an inquiry that “looks for the exact opposite”; what is needed for reasonable suspicion is “objective and particularized indicia of criminal activity.”
It is therefore important for circuit courts to critically assess claims that a particular area is high in crime so as not to give that label undue weight in a reasonable-suspicion analysis. To that end, some courts and commentators have established or proposed criteria for assessing whether an area qualifies as a high-crime area. The First Circuit Court of Appeals has established a three-factor test for analyzing whether a trial court’s high-crime-area finding is clearly erroneous. First, there must be some “nexus” between the type of crime at issue in a particular case and the type of crime that forms the basis for the high-crime designation. For example, a Terry stop based on a suspected drug transaction in an area with a high number of arrests for drug transactions. Second, the area must be defined by “limited geographic boundaries.” General claims that an entire city is a high-crime area are insufficient. And third, the stop in question must be close in time to reports of heightened criminal activity in that area, preventing an area from being perpetually designated “high crime” without continuing evidence. The First Circuit allows evidence on these factors to include “a mix of objective data and the testimony of police officers,” and it leaves open the possibility that other factors may be relevant in certain cases.
It is often difficult to assess the impact of this court’s decisions at the time they are made. Cases like this one often seem small in the law-developing context, just another fact-based decision. But the Fourth Amendment’s protections are eroded “not in dramatic leaps but in small steps, in decisions that seem ‘fact-bound,’ case-specific, and almost routine.” Accepting without scrutinizing a claim that an area is a “high-crime area” unwittingly makes all residents and visitors in such areas more susceptible to searches and seizures, thereby treating them as though they are “less worthy of Fourth Amendment protection.” We must guard against such unequal treatment and ensure that the Fourth Amendment offers the same protection to everyone, no matter their location.
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