State v. Doughty: WA Supremes Limit Scope of Terry Stops

Good decision.  A person’s two-minute visit to a suspected drug house at 3:20 in the morning is insufficient grounds for an investigative seizure.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/index.cfm?fa=opinions.showOpinion&filename=828521MAJ

Late one night, defendant Walter Moses Doughty approached a suspected drug house, stayed for two minutes, then drove away.  A police officer who observed Doughty’s approach and departure stopped Doughty on suspicion of drug activity.  This is typically called a Terry stop under Terry v. Ohio.  During this investigative seizure the officer ran a records check and, based on the results, arrested Doughty for driving with a suspended license.  Police found methamphetamine during a vehicle search incident to arrest.  The trial judge decided the search was not unlawful.  The Court of Appeals confirmeed the conviction.  The case ended up with the WA Supremes.

Some explanation of a Terry stop is necessary.  In justifying the particular intrusion/investigation, the police officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.  When reviewing the merits of an investigatory stop, a court must evaluate the totality of circumstances presented to the investigating officer.  The State must show by clear and convincing evidence that the stop was justified.

Under this analysis, the WA Supremes reasoned that a person’s presence in a high-crime area at a “late hour” does not, by itself, give rise to a reasonable suspicion to detain that person.  Similarly, a person’s “mere proximity to others independently suspected of criminal activity does not justify the stop.”

Although the State argued the circumstances warranted the search, the court reasoned that Police may not seize a person who visits a location — even a suspected drug house — merely because the person was there at 3:20 a.m. for only two minutes.  “The Terry-stop threshold was created to stop police from this very brand of interference with people’s everyday lives.”  Additionally, the United States Supreme Court embraced the Terry rule to stop police from acting on mere hunches.  “Anything less would invite intrusions upon constitutionally guaranteed rights based on nothing more substantial than inarticulate hunches, a result this Court has consistently refused to sanction.”  Terry, 392 U.S. at 22.

Finally, the Court reasoned that Officer Bishop relied only on his own incomplete observations.  There was no informant’s tip and no furtive movement.  Bishop merely saw Doughty approach and leave a suspected drug house at 3:20 a.m.  Bishop had no idea what, if anything, Doughty did at the house.  Accordingly, these circumstances does not warrant intrusion into Doughty’s private affairs.

The WA Supremes reversed the Court of Appeals, suppress the evidence against Doughty, and vacated his conviction.

My opinion?  GREAT decision.  It’s always nice when our esteemed judges follow the law in undramatic fashion.  Clearly, the stop was unlawful and the evidence should have been suppressed by the trial court and court of Appeals. 🙂