Hunch vs. Inference-Fifth Circuit clarifies in finding an illegal stop

In United States v. Monsivais, the Fifth Circuit found that an officer’s conclusion of criminal suspicion must be based on an impermissible intuitive sense or feeling when that conclusion does not include an articulable connection to the facts. Since there was no articulable connection between the officers’ suspicion of Mr. Monsivais and the facts, Mr. Monsivais’s seizure violated the Fourth Amendment

The Seizure

Officers spotted Mr. Monsivais walking away from a disabled truck on a Texas highway. After pulling over to perform a welfare check, the officers spoke with Mr. Monsivais for about four minutes. At that point, the officer informed Mr. Monsivais he was going to pat him down for weapons “because of his behavior” and “for officer safety reasons.” Because a reasonable person would not feel free to simply walk away when confronted with  this assertion of authority, a seizure occurred.

The Fourth Amendment Violation

Officers would be permitted to briefly detain Mr. Monsivais for investigative purposes if they could point to “specific and articulable facts” that gave rise to a reasonable suspicion that Mr. Monsivais had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime.

The government identified three facts to support reasonable suspicion of Mr. Monsivais. During the four minute interaction prior to the seizure, (1) after the officers had stopped and turned on the car’s flashing lights Mr. Monsivais kept walking past and away from the squad car, (2) Mr. Monsivais was confusing as to where he had been and allegedly gave an inconsistent statement about where he was heading, and (3) he kept putting his hands in his pockets and exhibited a jittery demeanor. The Fifth Circuit found none of these facts suggested criminal activities wither inherently or contextually.

The government instead attempted to put an ominous gloss over almost entirely normal behavior. Being nervous around police is an entirely normal reaction. And, although most might welcome police following a vehicle malfunction, the Constitution does not mandate enthusiastically embracing law enforcement during car troubles. As to the veracity of Mr. Monsivais’s statements, the record was unclear. Mr. Monsivais was walking in a direction opposite to where the disabled vehicle was pointing, but he could have merely been looking for gasoline in that direction or understood the officer’s inquiry  as referring to his immediate rather than ultimate destination.

Even viewed in their totality, the Court could discern no objectively logical path from the three specified facts to criminal activities. What separates a reasonable inference of criminality from a hunch of criminality is articulating how criminal behavior is linked to objective facts. The officers had no such articulation, so the Court concluded the suspicion arose from an impermissible hunch rather a reasonable inference.

Dissenting View

Circuit Judge Edith Jones dissented from this decision, believing the officers had the requisite reasonable suspicion. The dissent principally centered around a differing interpretation of the facts. According to the dissent, “it is impossible to conceive that [law-abiding or sober people whose cars are stuck on the side of a highway, far out in the country, at dusk] would flaunt their libertarian instincts to avoid contact with helpful police enforcement. The facts cry out reasonable suspicion.” The dissent criticized the majority’s analysis as incomprehensible; asking what else the officers needed to see–“smudges of white powder on his clothes?” The dissent also believed the fact the intrusion was limited to the level necessary to ensure the officers’ safety  was relevant to the inquiry, but the majority failed to give adequate deference to law enforcement

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