New bodycam footage just released out of Raleigh, North Carolina, where I once worked as a prosecutor, showing police officers encountering, detaining and using force on Darryl Tyree Williams on January 17, 2023. That use of force, involving multiple uses of tasers, by multiple officers, resulted in the death of Mr. Williams.
What I want to focus on is not the actual tasing part. You know how that goes. But rather, whether it was constitutional for him to have been detained and handcuffed in the first place. Nobody had reported a crime. Rather, the officers were allegedly engaged in what they called “proactive patrols” of business parking lots in a location they claim “has a history of repeat calls for service for drugs, weapons, and other criminal violations.”
This is an important constitutional issue. When did the seizure take place? When were Fourth Amendment protections first triggered here? It depends on the facts, and in this case, the footage.
You have two different scenarios for these types of police encounters:
1) consensual encounters, which are theoretically voluntary in nature – meaning that the suspects are free to leave at any time. This does not trigger Fourth Amendment protections; and then you have
2) a detainment, which does trigger Fourth Amendment protections. For a lawful detainment, officers must have reasonable suspicion of a crime. That did not exist, according to the report, until after the door was opened.
So, if the occupants in the car were already detained prior to the officer observing the open container and marijuana, they were being illegally detained from the very beginning. The issue here is a factual one.
As a general matter, police officers are free to approach and question individuals without necessarily effecting a seizure. Rather, a person is seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment “[o]nly when the officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen.” Id. (quoting Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 19 n.16 (1968)).
Such a seizure can be said to occur when, after considering the totality of the circumstances, the Court concludes that “a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.” Id. (quoting United States v. Gray, 883 F.2d 320, 322 (4th Cir. 1989)).
Similarly, when police approach a person at a location that they do not necessarily wish to leave, the appropriate question is whether that person would feel free to “terminate the encounter.” See Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 436 (1991). “[T]he free-to-leave standard is an objective test, not a subjective one.” United States v. Analla, 975 F.2d 119, 124 (4th Cir. 1992).5… (United States v. Nestor (N.D. W.Va. 2018)).
These are relevant facts to examine:
T]he number of police officers present during the encounter, whether they were in uniform or displayed their weapons, whether they touched the defendant, whether they attempted to block his departure or restrain his movement, whether the officers’ questioning was non-threatening, and whether they treated the defendant as though they suspected him of “illegal activity rather than treating the encounter as ‘routine’ in nature.”… (United States v. Nestor (N.D. W.Va. 2018))
Most people understand and accept that citizens have a constitutional right to record video of interactions with police officers, at this point – in general. Law enforcement has fought that every step of the way, of course. But is there a right to “livestream” encounters with police officers? More specifically, does a passenger of a vehicle detained at a traffic stop have a constitutional right to livestream the encounter from his cell phone?
Dijon Sharpe was a passenger in a car stopped for a traffic violation in Winterville, North Carolina on October 9, 2018. WPD officers Myers Helms and William Ellis performed the stop. Sharpe began live streaming the encounter with Facebook live. Helms told Sharpe that he could record the traffic stop from inside the car during the encounter but not livestream the traffic stop from inside the car during the traffic stop.
At the beginning of the stop, while the driver and Mr. Sharpe waited for the officers to approach the vehicle, the driver called a third party on his cell phone in order to have a witness to what was happening. Meanwhile, Sharpe began live-streaming what was happening on his Facebook account. The livestream shows that, during the stop, the driver continued his conversation with the third party on his cell phone during the entire course of the stop, including while speaking with the officers. The footage shows the interaction between Mr. Sharpe – the passenger – and Officer Helms. The video shows Officer Helms asking for Mr. Sharpe’s identification and then returning to the police vehicle. During this time, the driver continued his conversation with the third party over the cell phone, explaining that police had begun following the vehicle for some time before initiating the traffic stop. He expressed concern that he had been racially profiled.
As the driver was talking to the third party on his phone, Sharpe talks into his phone, reassuring viewers on Facebook live that he was fine, advocating for his practice of recording interactions with law enforcement. According to the lawsuit he would subsequently file, Sharpe began recording because he had been the victim of a brutal beating at the hands of police officers in the nearby town of Greenville ten months earlier, during a traffic stop. That experience prompted him to ensure any future interactions he had with law enforcement would be recorded for his own protection.
After emerging from the police vehicle, Officer Helms is seen on the video approaching the car window. He says, “What have we got? Facebook Live, cous?” As soon as Mr. Sharpe responds affirmatively, Officer Helms abruptly thrusts his arm through the passenger window and attempts to seize Mr. Sharpe’s cell phone, while pulling on Sharpe’s seatbelt and shirt. During this altercation, Officer Helms tells Sharpe: “We ain’t gonna do Facebook Live, because that’s an officer safety issue.”
Shortly afterwards, following the issuance of citations to the driver, Officer Ellis states: “Facebook Live . . . we’re not gonna have that, okay, because that lets everybody y’all follow on Facebook that we’re out here…” He says that recording is fine, but if you’re live, your phone is gonna be taken. Otherwise you’re going to jail. Sharpe then asked Ellis if that was a law. Ellis responded that it was a violation of the RDO statute, which is basically North Carolina’s obstruction statute. In the end, the phone was not seized. There was no citation or arrest pertaining to the livestreaming. However, the threat was made that next time, the phone would be seized and an arrest would be made if the phone was not forfeited.
In Mr. Sharpe’s video, look how the officer is standing there watching Sharp and the driver and treating them like they’re up to no good. Yet the reason for the stop was supposedly a basic traffic violation. The officer asks for Sharp’s ID because “he likes to know” who he’s out with. Is it any wonder that police officers get the reputation they have?
Based on the incident, as well as the threat to stop livestreaming in the future, under penalty of arrest, Sharpe sued the officers and the Town of Winterville under Section 1983 for violation of the First Amendment. The district court dismissed the claims against the individual officers on qualified immunity grounds, holding that it was not clearly established in October of 2018 that a passenger in a stopped vehicle had a constitutional right to record and live broadcast the interaction. Additionally, the Court held that live-streaming by a vehicle passenger poses a “unique” threat to officer safety that mere recording does not and is therefore not clearly protected under the First Amendment.
Eleven months later, the district court dismissed the claim against the Town of Winterville on the grounds that Mr. Sharpe had no constitutional right to live broadcast at all, and that even if he did, the town’s policy of arresting traffic stop passengers for live-streaming passes constitutional review under intermediate scrutiny. The district court held that “[r]ecording a traffic stop for publication after the traffic stop versus livestreaming an ongoing traffic stop from inside the stopped car during the traffic stop are significantly different.”
“[L]ivestreaming the interaction from inside the stopped car during the traffic stop … allows … those watching, to know the location of the interaction, to comment on and discuss in real-time the interaction, and to provide the perspective from inside the stopped car,” JA81. “The perspective from inside the stopped car, for example, would allow a viewer to see weapons from inside the stopped car that an officer might not be able to see and thereby embolden a coordinated attack on the police.” Thus the Court concluded that Mr. Sharpe had no First Amendment right to live-stream.
Mr. Sharpe appealed to the Fourth Circuit. It drew significant attention from civil liberties and press advocates. Seven amicus briefs were filed in support of his claims. Here’s Sharpe’s opening brief:
Oral arguments were held last month, which involved a heated discussion between one of the federal judges on the panel and the lawyer representing Mr. Sharpe. During the oral arguments, the federal judge seemed highly concerned about the rights of police officers, as opposed to the rights of an innocent citizen being detained as a passenger in a traffic stop. Listen for yourself.
The Fourth Amendment grants no rights to officers. “The right of the PEOPLE to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated …” Its purpose is to guarantee individual rights against the power of the government.
This flies in the face of actual Fourth Amendment law. They are using amorphous and general concerns over “officer safety” that are not particular to the individual they are seeking to restrict. In other words, the officers here, and those advocating for them to do so, want the officers to have the power to stop livestreaming, based only on obscure general concerns over officer safety. Theoretically, if some bad guy was watching the livestream he could find the location while the stop is in progress and theoretically harm the officers or cause some other safety issue.
They’re not saying that this particular individual should not livestream under these circumstances, because that person is a particular safety threat and those facts can be demonstrated in court or to a judge. They’re using blanket reasons. Again, that flies in the face of existing Fourth Amendment law, which requires particularity to the individual for things like frisks and searches. Blanket reasons never go well with constitutional law. Usually we’re told that law enforcement actions were justified based on the “totality of the circumstances.” Well now, because they hate video footage, we no longer look at the totality of the circumstances, but rather, at the vague concept that police officers are afraid of absolutely everything and everyone.
The fact is, freedom is scary. They need to deal with it, or get another job. We cannot and must not appease that fear.
This incident occurred on September 6, 2022. Ms. Dunlap began her workday as a property manager in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Her boss asked her to visit, inspect and photograph a property where unknown individuals had illegally dumped trash on the property. She arrived, exited her vehicle and began taking photos of the property with her cell phone. Afterwards, she got back into her car. Suddenly, Officer Haddock with the Fayetteville Police Department approached her. He had parked his vehicle on the private property and represented to Ms. Dunlap that he was searching for someone who had run from the police. He then proceeded to interrogate Ms. Dunlap, questioning her as to the purpose of her presence on the property, implying that she was engaged in criminal wrongdoing.
By the way, Harry Daniels, one of Ms. Dunlap’s lawyers, publicly challenged the Fayetteville Police Department’s claim that the officers involved were looking for a violent suspect who had last been seen half a mile away from the property. He said his team obtained police radio traffic implying there were no potentially violent suspects nearby. “The only person they was looking for was 20 miles away,” he said.
Detective Bell with the FPD then approached the back of Ms. Dunlap’s vehicle, as Ms. Dunlap politely and truthfully cooperated with the interrogation being conducted by Haddock. Bell then retrieved the vehicle’s license plate information, as Haddock continued to question the driver. However, Haddock’s questions and demeanor became more accusatory and harassing. Sensing that the officers were now detaining her under false pretenses and without a sufficient legal justification, Ms. Dunlap asserted her right to be free of unlawful seizures and requested to leave the property.
Officer Haddock informed Ms. Dunlap that she was not permitted to leave, and therefore seized her for Fourth Amendment purposes. He demanded Ms. Dunlap’s identification card. She provided her name, as well as other information, but did not provide her card. Upon seeing that Ms. Dunlap was recording them detaining a citizen on private property without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, Detective Bell, the female officer, then approached the driver’s side door and began physically pulling at Ms. Dunlap, attempting to forcefully manhandle her out of the vehicle.
The officers then forcefully removed Ms. Dunlap from the vehicle, snatched her cell phone out of her hand, thus ending her protection free speech of recording law enforcement actively engaged in misconduct, and physically harming her and then handcuffing her. Ms. Dunlap had an underlying condition of sickle-cell anemia. She began hyperventilating. She began breathing irregularly and then vomiting. As this was happening, the officers opened Ms. Dunlap’s fanny pack and obtained her identification card, without her consent.
After Ms. Dunlap is already in handcuffs, Sergeant Chris Kempf arrived on the scene. After seeing what was transpiring, he released Ms. Dunlap from he handcuffs. However, the officers still had her keys and she was unable to leave the scene. The officers did not provide Ms. Dunlap with a citation or other charging document. On September 8, 2022, Ms. Dunlap filed an internal complaint with the Fayetteville Police Department. On October 25, 2022, she filed a federal section 1983 lawsuit against the City of Fayetteville, the chief of police, Officer Ryan Haddock and Detective Amanda Bell.
Several times in the footage, the officers mention “RDO.” Here’s what that is:
Resisting, Delaying, or Obstructing an Officer in North Carolina is defined by NC General Statute § 14-223:
“If any person shall willfully and unlawfully resist, delay or obstruct a public officer in discharging or attempting to discharge a duty of his office, he shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.”
The law states that if a person 1.) reasonably knew that the person they were resisting was an officer (the officer wore his/her uniform and badge and acted like an officer, or an undercover or plain-clothed officer made it known he/she was an officer) and that 2.) the defendant intentionally resisted or obstructed the officer, the person can be convicted of this misdemeanor. However, when giving orders or making an arrest, the officer must be lawfully discharging his/her official duties.
On October 25, 2022, she filed a federal section 1983 lawsuit against the City of Fayetteville, the chief of police, Officer Ryan Haddock and Detective Amanda Bell. There are three primary civil rights violations here under federal law: unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment for the initial seizure and then prolonged detention, excessive force under the Fourth Amendment for the manner in which she was taken into custody, and First Amendment retaliation, for the officers’ response to Ms. Dunlap filming them.
Just released, body cam footage shows Gastonia, North Carolina police arresting a homeless veteran, suspected of panhandling in a median, and tasing his dog, named Sunshine. Unfortunately, Sunshine didn’t make it. This is brand new footage, ordered released by a judge, against the will of Gastonia law enforcement, who fought the release of the footage, supposedly to guarantee the homeless vet, Joshua Rohrer, a “fair trial.” Yeah, right. If law enforcement doesn’t want you to see it, then you probably need to see it.
Here’s the raw footage:
In the applicable jurisdiction – the Fourth Circuit – these cases seem to come out of North Carolina. There is a very recent published opinion out of the Fourth Circuit – Ray v. Roane – which deprived police officers of qualified immunity in a civil lawsuit for shooting someone’s dog. Here’s a video I just did a few weeks back in June on another similar video:
As an initial matter, it is well-settled that privately owned dogs are “effects” under the Fourth Amendment, and that the shooting and killing of such a dog constitutes a “seizure.” So it’s a different legal standard that standard police shooting cases. It’s an overall reasonableness standard, recognizing that police can shoot dogs where officer safety justifies the decision.
The question is whether, at the time the officer shot the dog, he held a reasonable belief that the dog posed a threat to himself or others. If the facts are sufficient to show that such a belief was unreasonable, then the law is clearly established in the Fourth Circuit that shooting a dog under those circumstances would constitute an unreasonable seizure of Mr. Rohrer’s property under the Fourth Amendment. That’s not a great way of looking at the value of our dogs, but that’s the actual legal analysis.
Here, the tasing officer, Maurice Taylor, claims that the dog “bit his boot.” Although I snipped the footage for Youtube reasons, you can click the link and watch the entire raw footage on Mr. Rohrer’s channel. You can see that the tasering took place well after the dog allegedly bit the boot. Immediately after the officer claims the dog bit the boot, you can see the dog wagging its tail. I have my doubts. Perhaps what really happened is the dog came up to him, wagging his tail, and Officer Friendly kicked her in the face. They don’t call them “jack booted thugs” for nothing.
That reminds me of the officer from yesterday’s video, where the guy he beat up actually attacked his fists. At the point where the taser is deployed, the arguable officer safety concern actually involves his partner. You can see the dog on video at this point, and the dog clearly doesn’t make any move to attack the partner.
All-in-all, the response to this itself speaks of the lack of reasonableness of the decision under the circumstances. And how many cops were present towards the end of the footage. Fifteen? Twenty? Who is paying these people, and where are they now?