When Too Many People Can Be Stopped : The Erosion of Reasonable Suspicion Required for a Terry Stop

by Aliza Hochman Bloom

Abstract

The Supreme Court and the Eleventh Circuit each acknowledge that the “reasonable suspicion” required by the Fourth Amendment for a warrantless stop is imprecise. Nearly five decades after the Supreme Court’s decision in Terry v. Ohio, courts find it difficult to explain what level of detail constitutes reasonable suspicion to stop a potential suspect following a completed crime. Given that judicial review of investigatory stops is based upon the totality of the circumstances before a law enforcement officer at a particular time, all relevant legal precedents are highly fact-specific, making it difficult to determine the level of detail required to support reasonable. Moreover, some factors that the Supreme Court has found pertinent to assess reasonable suspicion are irrelevant when the warrantless stop occurs following a completed crime.

This article attempts to explain why, in the context of a completed crime, some of the factors that the Supreme Court has held can support reasonable suspicion are actually irrelevant. Most importantly, once a crime has been completed, an individual’s particular location within a “high crime neighborhood” is not a relevant factor supporting a warrantless stop. Next, in the context of a completed crime, there are two critical questions inadequately answered by the existing precedent: (1) how specific does a tip need to be in order to provide the reasonable suspicion required by the Fourth Amendment; (2) to what degree does an individual need to match that description in order for the officer’s Terry stop to be constitutional. This article suggests that the answers to these two questions are interrelated with negative correlation: if a description or tip is reliable, and provides a detailed suspect description, then stopping an individual who does not perfectly meet each detail within that description may still comport with the Fourth Amendment. Conversely, when law enforcement possesses merely a vague, general description, it is critical that the person they stop meet that description exactly. In other words, the broader the description, the more critical it is that the individual who is stopped meets that wide, broad description.

 

About the Author

Aliza Hochman Bloom is Assistant Federal Defender for the Appellate Division of the Middle District of Florida. Previously, Ms. Hochman Bloom clerked for the Honorable Charles Wilson of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals and the Honorable Charlene Honeywell of the Middle District of Florida. She is Counsel of Record for the Petitioner in Cordell Felix v. United States, Case Number 17-8318, presently pending before the Supreme Court on a Petition for Writ of Certiorari.