In late November 2010, a District of Columbia police officer approached a man he suspected of peeing in an alley. It turned out the man hadn't urinated, but the encounter ended with the man being searched and charged with possessing a handgun the officer found in his jacket. Today, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals reversed his conviction, finding the officer violated his Fourth Amendment rights.
A divided three-judge panel found the officer should have stopped his encounter with the defendant, Ernest Ramsey, once he no longer suspected Ramsey of committing a crime – in this case, public urination. The officer's actions after that point-running Ramey's name and birth date through a police database and then searching him-were unlawful, the court found.
Absent "reasonable articulable suspicion or probable cause," the police can't detain individuals to check their information in the police database, said Judge Phyllis Thompson, writing for the majority. Senior Judge Vanessa Ruiz wrote a concurring opinion saying the officer shouldn't have stopped Ramsey at all, while Judge John Fisher dissented, saying he would have upheld the conviction.
After Ramsey was arrested, he moved to suppress evidence of the gun. At the suppression hearing, according to today's opinion, the officer testified he was on an evening patrol when he saw Ramsey go into an alley. The alley led to a park that was closed after dark and wasn’t near homes or businesses. The officer said the alley was used for urination, drug sales and other crimes.
The officer said he saw Ramsey standing in front of a wall with his pants zipper down and hands near his groin area. The officer didn't see Ramsey peeing or observe any evidence he had already urinated. When the officer asked Ramsey what he was doing, Ramsey allegedly replied, "Man, I was about to use the bathroom."
Ramsey walked out of the alley with the officer, who asked for Ramsey's identification. After giving Ramsey's information to a police dispatcher to check, he was mistakenly told Ramsey had an outstanding bench warrant. Ramsey agreed to be searched and the officer found a handgun in his jacket pocket. Thompson said it was appropriate for the office to ask for Ramsey's identification, but that he crossed the line by running the warrant check.
"At that point, we conclude, because appellant would not have felt free to leave, the encounter became a seizure — for which Officer [Kevin] Lally no longer had reasonable, articulable suspicion," Thompson said. Lally was the arresting officer.
Ruiz, in her concurring opinion, agreed with the reversal, but disagreed that the officer had reason to stop Ramsey at all. In 2010, public urination wasn't explicitly a crime under the city's disorderly conduct law; that changed in 2011. To legally stop Ramsey for disorderly conduct in 2010, the judge wrote, "he had to be posing some actual or potential threat to public order." Given that Ramsey was in a secluded alley, there was no immediate threat of offending anyone, and he wasn't exposing himself, the officer lacked "reasonable articulable suspicion," she said.
Fisher, on the other hand, wrote that even before the disorderly conduct laws changed in 2011, the officer "was not required to shrug his shoulders and walk away" when he believed Ramsey had urinated or was about to do so. The judge cited case law holding that once the officer had reason to stop Ramsey, checking his identification and running a warrant check were "basic police practices." Fisher said police couldn’t "unduly prolong" a stop, but the entire encounter in Ramsey's case only lasted a few minutes.
Ramsey's lawyers, Washington-area solo practitioners Kenneth McPherson and Gregory Gardner were not immediately available for comment. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office also couldn't be reached.