February 13, 2023, Jacob Jackson is walking down a public sidewalk in Beckley, West Virginia. A uniformed sheriff’s deputy pulls up in a marked police cruiser and activates his emergency lights. The reason? He has civil service papers to serve related to an eviction proceeding. Jacob asserts his rights. The deputy asserts what he believes to be his rights as a police officer. Can a police officer forcibly detain you, ID you, search you, put his hands on you, just because he has civil paperwork to serve on someone? Even if you’ve done nothing illegal?
Jacob brought me his cell phone video. I then obtained the body cam footage via a FOIA request from the Raleigh County Sheriff’s Department.
When police officers encounter pedestrians, they could trigger an investigatory detention, which requires reasonable suspicion, or they could just be engaged in a consensual encounter, which requires nothing. It’s just a conversation.
Consensual encounters, i.e., a conversation, does not trigger the Fourth Amendment, and can be easily identified if the subject asks whether or not he’s free to leave. If the question isn’t asked, courts will look to the circumstances. Would a reasonable, regular person believe that he was NOT free to leave? Were emergency lights activated? Multiple police officers? Guns drawn? Put in handcuffs? Accused of criminal conduct? Told to show your hands? Told to get on the ground? Or was it just a conversation.
The question is whether a reasonable person would feel free to terminate the encounter. If the person was involuntarily detained by the officer, that constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment, no matter how brief the detention or how limited its purpose.
If a detention occurs, the courts require the detaining officer to be able to articulate why a particular behavior is suspicious or logically demonstrate that the person’s behavior is indicative of some sinister criminal activity. It must be based on suspicion of illegal conduct. In other words, it cannot be based on suspicion of legal conduct, such as walking down a public sidewalk, or even being a defendant in a civil lawsuit – even an eviction proceeding. Anyone can serve lawsuit paperwork: a private investigator, a rando off the street – anyone. Just doing that does not entitle any individual to detain or arrest the target of the civil service.
This video demonstrated that Jacob Jackson was not suspected of having committed any crime. The officer had no right to involuntarily detain him. He had no right to do anything but engage in a consensual encounter with Mr. Jackson. Due to the fact that Mr. Jackson asserted his rights, there’s no doubt that the officer detained him and thereby triggered the Fourth Amendment. Given the fact that there was no allegation or suspicion of illegal conduct, reasonable suspicion did not exist, and therefore the Fourth Amendment was violated – no matter how brief the detention was, and no matter how badly the officer, or some litigant, wanted Mr. Jackson to be served with the paperwork.