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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > November 2012 > United States v. Griffin — Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Alabama, Florida and Georgia), Oct. 2,

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United States v. Griffin — Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Alabama, Florida and Georgia), Oct. 2, 2012

Question: Does a valid stop and frisk become unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment when an officer asks some brief questions that are unrelated to the reason for the stop and the purpose of the frisk?

Quick Answer: No, as long as the unrelated questions are brief and do not prolong the stop.

Facts: A peace officer responded to a 911 call from a store in Jacksonville, Fla. The officer was familiar with the area and knew that there had been drug activity and several burglaries nearby. The store’s security guard told the officer that a man attempted to steal some clothing. The guard pointed out and identified a male walking quickly away from the store. As the officer approached the suspect, the man repeatedly looked over his shoulder and continued to walk away briskly. The officer asked the man, Kareen Griffin to stop, but he disobeyed the command and continued walking away. Finally, the officer approached Griffin and informed him that he was investigating a theft. Griffin said he did not steal anything. The officer frisked Griffin to ensure safety. During the frisk, the officer felt what he “believed to be” C-cell batteries in Griffin’s pocket. The officer asked, “Hey, what’s in your pocket? Why do you have batteries?” Griffin responded that the items were shotgun shells, not batteries.

Why this case is important: The court found that brief questioning unrelated to the stop is not unreasonable; therefore, questioning was not a search. First, the initial stop of Griffin was permissible because the officer reasonably suspected him of stealing based on the security guard’s identification and Griffin’s evasive and noncompliant behavior. Second, the frisk was permissible because the officer made the stop alone at night in a high crime area. In addition, Griffin acted evasively and refused to obey commands to stop. Finally, the questions about items felt during the frisk, while not related to the reason for the stop, did not prolong the stop. Because the officer had not yet completed his investigation into the alleged attempted theft, and because he acted diligently, his brief questions did not transform the stop into a prolonged seizure.

Keep in mind: The simple act of police questioning does not constitute a seizure. Police can stop and briefly detain a person for investigative purposes if the officer has a reasonable suspicion supported by articulable facts that criminal activity “may be afoot,” even if the officer lacks probable cause. Once an officer has stopped an individual, he may conduct a pat-down or frisk for weapons if he reasonably believes that his safety, or the safety of others, is threatened. Officers may ask unrelated questions as long as the stop is not unreasonably prolonged.

Visit the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals website to read the entire opinion.