Police Detention Is Illegal Based on Resemblance to Suspect
In late November, 2010, Everett Robert Walker, age 19 and African-American, disembarked from a train in at the Santa Clara South light rail station in downtown San Jose. Santa Clara County Deputy Sheriff Frank Thrall observed Walker and suspected he was one of two young black men involved in a sexual battery at the same station a week earlier.In a Nutshell: A detention is improper unless police have an articulable suspicion that a suspect committed a crime or is about to commit a crime and that the suspect was or is involved in that crime. If a suspect merely resembles a reported suspect, police cannot detain him or her on that basis alone. Police must tie that suspect to the specific crime that forms the similarity. In the following case, that was not done, so the evidence seized was suppressed.
Thrall approached Walker and asked him to show proof that he had paid the fare. Walker showed him a valid ticket.
The People then charged Walker with felony possession of cocaine base for sale or purchase (Health and Safety Code § 11351.5), giving a false name to a police officer upon arrest or detention, a misdemeanor, (Penal Code § 148.9) and possession of 28.5 grams or less of marijuana, an infraction (Penal Code § 11357 (b)).
In the Santa Clara Superior Court, Walker moved to suppress all evidence seized, arguing that it was unconstitutional because it was done without a search or arrest warrant. Walker wisely limited his argument to this, as it then shifted the burden to the prosecution to show the search and seizure without a warrant was legal.
The trial court denied Walker’s motion to suppress. The trial court judge found the detention proper because Walker’s physical appearance “closely matched the description of one of the suspects.” Defendant then pleaded guilty on all counts, was placed on felony probation and appealed the ruling on the motion to suppress.
In his appeal, Walker argued that Thrall did not have an objectively reasonable basis to detain him after he showed him his fare. His appearance was also quite different from the sexual assault suspects.
The Sixth Appellate District, in People v. Everett Robert Walker (2012 DJDAR 14472), agreed with Walker. It characterized Thrall’s detention as based on “mere curiosity or hunch” as improper under Terry v. Ohio (1968) 392 U.S. 1, 22. Even Thrall’s stop of Walker to ask him about paying his fare was improper because Thrall could not articulate why he suspected Walker of not paying his fare.
Turning to the more problematic similarity in appearance issue, the appellate court evaluated the evidence and the officer’s testimony concerning Walker and the sexual assault suspect. The court determined that the actual only similarity between Walker and the suspect was race (both were Black) and age (both were 19). Their heights were materially dissimilar and one had facial hair (Walker), while the suspect did not one week earlier. In short, there were no objective facts to support the detention of Walker before Thrall asked for identification. The search was therefore improper.
The appellate court therefore directed that the trial court dismiss the case.
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