The news came on today concerning the search of the now infamous Facebook Killer. The reporter was giving information about the man in Cleveland, Ohio having murdered a man walking on the street and streaming it on Facebook. The reporter stated the police pursued the suspect for a short distance attempting to make a “Traffic Stop.” Apparently the bad guy died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a McDonald’s lot.
It is a common mistake that most civilians, reporters alike make when referring to police making a traffic stop if a vehicle is involved. That is normally the situation but not in this case. There is a distinction between two situations in which the police can stop and detain a citizen contrary to the Constitution of the United States. One is for an offense witnessed by the police officer and the other is an investigatory stop.
Our founders added Amendments to the Constitution and the one that applies here is the Fourth Amendment. In short the amendment states the government (Police in this case) cannot seize a citizen without due process which means obtaining a warrant. The warrant must state who/what is to be searched, what is being searched for and if found, what the evidence from the search would constitute a violation of which law.
Otherwise the government may not deprive you of your freedom to leave without answering any questions. Then along comes Detective Martin McFadden of the Cleveland Police Department. Det. McFadden was the arresting Officer in what I consider the most influential Supreme Court decision ever to come before the United States Supreme Court, Ohio versus Terry.
In 1963 Det. McFadden noticed two men acting suspiciously at the corner of Huron Road and Euclid Avenue. Mr. Chilton and Mr. Terry would each take turns walking down the street, stop and look inside a store window and then walk back to the corner, talk with the other man and then the other man would do the same. Det. McFadden testified they did this 24 times while he observed. A third man named Katz joined Terry and Chilton and talked with them.
Det. McFadden possibly wanting to go to lunch by this time approached all three men and asked their names. As criminals are want to do, they only mumbled some gibberish. Det. McFadden did a pat down of one of the men and found a pistol and bullets in a coat pocket. He also found a gun and bullets on Mr. Terry. The three men were arrested and taken to the Police Department. Terry and Katz were charged with felony Carrying a Concealed Weapon. Katz did not have a weapon so was not charged.
Terry appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court and Chief Justice Warren gave the majority opinion that although Det. McFadden saw no crime committed, the totality of the circumstances gave him the reasonable suspicion that a crime was being committed or was about to be. McFadden felt the men were casing the place for a stick up. These exceptions to the Fourth Amendment are called “Exigent circumstances.”
In 1963 the Supreme Court named this police procedure a “Stop and Frisk.” The Court also ruled the Detective did in fact “Seize” Mr. Terry and “Search” his person without “Probable Cause” to believe a crime had been committed. However the Court ruled that this was good police procedure and the totality of the circumstances would leave any prudent citizen or police officer to believe the men were about to commit a crime and for the officer’s own safety as well as that of nearby citizens it was within his scope of duty to check for weapons.
Now back to the Facebook Killer, where the Pennsylvania State Police had no personal observation of a crime being or about to be committed. What they did have was a nationwide manhunt for a man who was a danger to himself and society based on his video of the murder and the dead body back in Cleveland. The officers in Pennsylvania indeed had a reasonable suspicion that the man they were checking out had a deadly weapon as it was already displayed in the video.
In their attempt to what the reporter stated to “Make a traffic stop” the man ended up taking his own life. A traffic stop is when a police officer observes you making a move that is in violation of a traffic law, such as speeding, running a stop sign or having a headlight out. Those, like the “Investigatory stop” do not require a search or arrest warrant because a violation was committed in police presence.
Now everybody knows what a traffic stop is if they ever watched a police drama. An investigatory stop is not so well known that the reporter used the improper term for what the Pennsylvania State Troopers did, conducting an Investigatory Stop.
If you are one who listens to police scanners, know that a “Traffic Stop” called in by an officer indicates the officer witnessed a violation of the law. If the officer calls in, “I’m making a felony stop” then know that it is an investigatory stop to detect evidence of a crime being or having been committed.
This may sound like an argument over rhetoric, but if the officer is unable to articulate his suspensions for making the stop, he stands a much higher chance of losing his case. Sadly the victim back in Cleveland died. But had he lived through the ordeal, it would be a shame to lose the case because the officer documented making a traffic stop instead of a felony or investigatory stop.