Moving Suspects During Detentions

by Charles Gillingham

I happened to be in a courtroom recently where the judge was hearing motions to suppress.  In one motion an officer testified that he detained and then placed the suspect in his patrol car for "officer safety."  In another,  an officer testified that it was his routine to have individuals sit on the curb during a car stop.  Fortunately for the two cases, the officers had facts to support these actions.  Using terms during testimony like "officer safety" and "routine" to justify actions during a detention is in the best case, sloppy, in the worst case illegal-potentially leading to the suppression of otherwise admissible evidence.  Let's review detentions and some of the circumstances that allow for the movement of suspects during detentions. 


It is settled that when an officer restrains an individual's freedom of movement in any way that the officer has "seized" that person.  That is the holding in Terry v. Ohio.  A detention must be supported by reasonable suspicion.  Reasonable suspicion must be supported by articulable facts that leads a reasonable officer, in her training and experience, to believe criminal activity is afoot and the person detained is involved in that activity.  In other words, while "officer safety" is a paramount concern, it cannot, by itself, support a detention.  You must, as a reasonable officer, state the facts that lead you to detain the individual.  Some examples:


·       Night, in a high crime area.

·       During a car stop, more passengers in the vehicle than officers.

·       Back-up officer is a substantial distance away.

·       Suspect refuses to comply with commands to keep hands visible.

·       Baggy clothing that can contain a weapon.



While not an exhaustive list, these circumstances will support the decision to detain and then move a suspect during the detention.  Please save yourself time and headache by DOCUMENTING the facts that support your decision in your offense report. 


Once you have articulable facts to support the decision to detain you may restrict the detainees movements as well as those who may be with the detainee such as passengers in a vehicle. 


You may order those in a car out, or vise versa.  You may order a detainee to stay in certain place, or have them seated on the curb. Be careful about putting a detainee in your patrol car.  Some examples of when that may be an appropriate procedure is when you are waiting for a witness for a show up, a prolonged identification, onlookers are hostile, the detainee is becoming hostile, or if officers need to focus on other matters such as a victim or crime scene.  Again, these are not the only factual scenarios that allow for the detention of an individual in a patrol car, however, it is clear that "routine" and "officer safety" are not on the list.