Not according to the trial court judge.

Would the appellate court agree?

After review of the record, we conclude that, upon consideration of the totality of the circumstances, Officer Bronsord had a reasonable and articulable suspicion that Mr. Partin was involved in criminal activity to warrant an investigatory stop, and that Bronsord’s suspicion was not based solely on a “hunch.”

 

State v. Partin

2023 – Ohio – 4056

Second District Appellate Court

Montgomery County, Ohio

November 9, 2023

 

Hand-to-Hand Transaction in a Motel 6 Parking Lot

In the late evening hours of August 8, 2020, Englewood Police Officer Andrew Bronsord was patrolling the area of the Motel 6 at 9325 North Main Street, Englewood, which was an area known to him as a high-crime and high-drug area; he observed what he believed, based on his nineteen years of training and experience as a law enforcement officer, to be a hand-to- hand drug transaction between an individual later identified as Mr. James Partin and another man.

This encounter between Englewood Police Officer Andrew Bronsord and Recidivist Mr. James Partin would lead to the suppression of his heroin and an appeal.

Investigative Detention Led to Arrest

When the two men observed Officers Bronsord’s cruiser, they quickly separated. After gathering further information, including from the clerk of the hotel who advised Officer Bronsord that Mr. Partin was not a guest at the hotel, Officer Bronsord interacted with Mr. Partin and later detained and arrested him and placed him in a cruiser. After Mr. Partin was moved from Officer Bronsord’s cruiser to that of another officer, drugs were found in the area where Mr. Partin had been seated in the first cruiser.

Motion to Suppress is Filed and Granted – Narcotics are Suppressed

Mr. Partin was subsequently indicted for possession of drugs, and he filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of his detention and arrest. Following an evidentiary hearing, the trial court found that Officer Bronsord had lacked reasonable and articulable suspicion to justify the stop of Mr. Partin and granted his motion to suppress. The State appeals from the trial court’s decision.

Appeal

The State’s sole assignment of error states:

Officer Bronsord had reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity sufficient to justify Mr. Partin’s investigatory detention. The trial court erred, therefore, in sustaining Mr. Partin’s motion to suppress.

The State contends that the trial court improperly found that the police officer did not have reasonable articulable suspicion that criminal activity was occurring for the purpose of an investigatory detention of Mr. Partin. According to the State, the motion to suppress should have been overruled by the trial court, and the trial court’s judgment must be reversed. We agree.

Consensual Encounters – Established Case Law

Consensual encounters are not seizures, and Fourth Amendment guarantees are not implicated in such encounters.” State v. Keister, 2022-Ohio-856, citing United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 554, (1980).

Investigative Detention – Established Case Law

Under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, (1968), a police officer who lacks probable cause to arrest may, consistent with the Fourth Amendment, make an investigatory stop, including a traffic stop, of a person if the officer has reasonable suspicion to believe that the person is or is about to be engaged in criminal activity.” State v. Tidwell, 2021-Ohio-2072, citing Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. 393, 396, (2014).

Investigatory detentions do not violate the Fourth Amendment “as long as the police have a reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity.” State v. Ramey, 2016-Ohio-607, citing Terry at 21.

Reasonable Suspicion – Established Case Law

“Reasonable suspicion entails some minimal level of objective justification for making a stop – that is, something more than an inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or ‘hunch,’ but less than the level of suspicion required for probable cause.” State v. Jones, 70 Ohio App.3d 554, 556-557, (2d Dist.).

“An individual’s presence in an area of expected criminal activity, standing alone, is not enough to support a reasonable, particularized suspicion that the person is committing a crime.” Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 124-25, (2000), citing Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47, (1979). However, “officers are not required to ignore the relevant characteristic of a location in determining whether the circumstances are sufficiently suspicious to warrant further investigation,” and, thus, a stop occurring in a high crime area is a relevant contextual consideration in a Terry analysis. Id., citing United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873, 885, (1975).

Application of Facts to Established Case Law

The State argues that Officer Bronsord had reasonable and articulable suspicion for the purpose of a Terry stop when he initially approached Mr. Partin. According to the State, the record supports that the officer approached Mr. Partin during night-time hours and knew the area to be a high-crime area where drug, prostitution, and domestic disturbance arrests as well as warrant arrests had been made by him and other officers in the past. The officer also observed what he believed, based upon his training and experience as a police officer for nineteen years, was a hand-to-hand drug transaction between Mr. Partin and another individual; Mr. Partin was standing near the second man with his hand extended and then withdrew his hand and put it in his pocket. Upon observing Officer Bronsord, the two men went in different directions, and Mr. Partin looked away from the officer with his head down; the officer then observed what he perceived to be Mr. Partin’s evasive behavior of ascending to the second floor of the hotel, not entering into any room or engaging any individual, and “wandering” around the property.

Prior to approaching Mr. Partin, Officer Bronsord also learned from the motel clerk that Mr. Partin was not a guest at the property and that the clerk believed Mr. Partin was with individuals with whom he was “having trouble” around the back of the motel. Following an initial consensual encounter, Officer Bronsord told Mr. Partin to “stay put, man” while he gathered additional information and obtained a request from the motel clerk to trespass Mr. Partin from the property. After Mr. Partin repeatedly refused to provide his identifying information for the officer, he was placed under arrest. Officer Bronsord then learned that Mr. Partin had an outstanding warrant for his arrest. Illicit drugs were eventually found in Officer Bronsord’s cruiser in the floor area where Mr. Partin had been sitting.

Mr. Partin Argued that Officer Bronsford Did Not Have Reasonable Suspicion

In response to the State’s argument, Mr. Partin argues that he was detained of his liberty from the moment Officer Bronsord asked to speak with him, despite no show of force or commands from the officer. Mr. Partin also argues that Officer Bronsord possessed nothing more than a mere “hunch” relating to the nature of his activities, which was insufficient to form a basis for a Terry stop. We disagree. The encounter between the two was consensual until the time the officer asked Mr. Partin to “stay put, man,” and the detention was based on reasonable and articulable suspicion, rather than a mere hunch.

In sustaining the motion to suppress, the trial court found that on August 8, 2020, Officer Bronsord had more than ten years of experience as a police officer and had significant training, including as an evidence technician. It further found that Officer Bronsord arrived at the Motel 6 at approximately 9:50 p.m. and was aware that the area was known for drug activity and as a high call-out area where he had previously made drug arrests. Officer Bronsord observed two males interacting near one of the buildings and, while it was dark outside, the area was lighted; upon seeing the cruiser, one of the men, later identified as Mr. Partin, turned away and placed his hand in his right pocket. Although Officer Bronsord was not able to see anything in Mr. Partin’s hand, he suspected that Mr. Partin had placed something in his pocket. The officer observed Mr. Partin proceed to the second floor of the building and walk in front of the rooms. A few moments later, after seeing Mr. Partin then in the area of the office, Officer Bronsord learned from the clerk that Mr. Partin was not a resident of the motel and that the clerk was having difficulties with people, which included Mr. Partin, behind one of the buildings. When Officer Bronsord approached Mr. Partin, he appeared nervous and refused to provide his name when asked. The trial court found that Mr. Partin had denied being on the second floor of the building, but he advised the officer that he was present with a friend, was confused about his room number, and wanted a room close to his overheated work truck which contained tools. Officer Bronsord did not respond to Mr. Partin’s questions about what crime he was suspected of having committed. After advising Mr. Partin to “stay put,” Bronsord was asked by the clerk to trespass Mr. Partin from the property. Mr. Partin continued to refuse to provide his name, despite being asked repeatedly by Officer Bronsord for the information for the trespass notice. Mr. Partin was then arrested. A short time later, illicit drugs were found in the area where Mr. Partin had been seated in a cruiser.

Why the Trial Court Judge was Wrong

The trial court found that Officer Bronsord’s instruction to Mr. Partin to “stay put” constituted a detention, requiring reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal activity to support the officer’s actions. Instead of focusing on the totality of the circumstances to determine whether the officer possessed reasonable and articulable suspicion sufficient to warrant Mr. Partin’s detention, though, the trial court evaluated each individual piece of information possessed by the officer as either “innocent” or “not illegal” and concluded that there was not reasonable articulable suspicion that Mr. Partin was engaging in criminal behavior at the time he was told to “stay put.” Whether conduct is illegal or legal is not a part of the analysis in determining reasonable and articulable suspicion. A series of seemingly innocent and legal acts, taken together, can be sufficient to form reasonable and articulable suspicion that an individual is engaged in criminal activity. Additionally, the trial court strayed from evaluating the information known to Officer Bronsord by highlighting that there were no other witnesses to the observed behavior between Mr. Partin and the other male, that the officer did not attempt to confirm his observations with other guests or persons present on the property, and that the officer contacted his supervisor. The center of a court’s inquiry must lie in what an officer knew, and not what he could have learned from further investigation. Still further, despite the trial court’s findings, Officer Bronsord was unaware of Mr. Partin’s claim that his truck had overheated and he wanted a room near his vehicle at the time he told Mr. Partin to stay put. While Mr. Partin so testified at the oral hearing before the trial court, that information was not within the totality of the circumstances known to the officer when he detained Mr. Partin. A review of the video from Officer Bronsord’s body camera confirms that Mr. Partin did not advise the officer that his truck had overheated or that he wanted a room near his truck; instead, after denying he had been on the second floor of the building, when the officer told Mr. Partin that he had seen him on the upper floor, Mr. Partin claimed that he was on the second floor of the building because he thought his room number was 238 rather than 138 as he then claimed. The trial court also found that Officer Bronsord contacted his supervisor because of his uncertainty about what he had observed, thereby implying that the officer lacked reasonable and articulable suspicion for the detention of Mr. Partin. But the analysis of the totality of the circumstances is not focused on Bronsord’s subjective belief about the information in his possession, but instead that of a reasonable officer under the circumstances.

We must view the facts through his eyes as a reasonable and cautious police officer on the scene who is guided by his own experience and training.

Accepting the facts as true as found by the trial court, we must independently determine, without deference to the conclusion of the trial court, whether the facts satisfied the applicable legal standard for a Terry stop. While standing alone, an individual fact may be insufficient to create a reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal wrongdoing, the totality of the circumstances in this instance supported Officer Bronsord’s detention of Mr. Partin to investigate. We must view the facts through his eyes as a reasonable and cautious police officer on the scene who is guided by his own experience and training. Guided by his training and experience as a law enforcement officer for nineteen years, Officer Bronsord was familiar with the area around the motel. He saw Mr. Partin in a high-crime area in which drug activity had often occurred; based on his training and experience as well as his observations of Mr. Partin’s activity, he believed he had witnessed Mr. Partin engage in a hand-to-hand drug transaction. Contrary to the trial court’s evaluation, Officer Bronsord was not required to be certain that a hand-to-hand drug transaction had taken place in order to support his reasonable and articulable suspicion, based upon the totality of the circumstances, that Mr. Partin was engaged in criminal activity. Hand-to-hand drug transactions, by their very criminal nature, are surreptitious and not conducted in open view. When viewed in light of all of the information known to Officer Bronsord, the circumstances justified the conclusion that reasonable and articulable suspicion was present to authorize the detention of Mr. Partin for further investigation.

Conclusion

After review of the record, we conclude that, upon consideration of the totality of the circumstances, Officer Bronsord had a reasonable and articulable suspicion that Mr. Partin was involved in criminal activity to warrant an investigatory stop, and that Bronsord’s suspicion was not based solely on a “hunch.”

Holding

Because we have found that Mr. Partin’s detention was supported by a reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity, we reject the trial court’s conclusion that the illicit drugs found as a result of the detention and subsequent arrest were fruit of the poisonous tree.

Information for this article was obtained from State v. Mr. Partin, 2023 – Ohio – 4056.

State v. Partin, 2023 – Ohio – 4056 was issued by the Second District Appellate Court on November 9, 2023 and is binding by the following Ohio Counties: Champaign, Clark, Darke, Greene, Miami and Montgomery.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Totality of the Circumstances – To lawfully detain a person the officer must have; Reasonable Suspicion that criminal activity is afoot [on-going]. This was established in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). In this case, Englewood Police Officer Andrew Bronsord observed Mr. James Partin engage in a hand-to-hand exchange with another male.  This exchange occurred at the Motel 6 in Englewood.  Officer Bronsord articulated that the Motel 6 “the area was known for drug activity and as a high call-out area where he had previously made drug arrests.”.  This of course is common at most Motel 6’s – a high call-out area – but Reasonable Suspicion must be individualized.  Simply because a person is in a high crime area does not permit law enforcement to stop everyone in that area.  However, Officer Bronsord observed a hand-to-hand exchange indicating a transfer of narcotics.  Unfortunately the trial court evaluated Mr. Partin’s actions individually rather than by a totality of the circumstances. For more on the Totality of the Circumstances Doctrine see: https://www.objectivelyreasonable.com/category/totality-of-the-circumstances/
  2. Investigative Detention – At the moment Officer Bronsord told Mr. Partin to “Stay put”, Partin was detained, whether or not Mr. Partin was physically restrained, handcuffed or placed in the cruiser. If however, Mr. Partin had fled on foot he would not have been ‘detained‘ because to be detained an individual must be either be in physical or constructive custody.  A suspect fleeing on foot is neither in physical or constructive custody.  For more on the Investigative Detention Doctrine see: https://www.objectivelyreasonable.com/category/investigative-detention/
  3. Probable Cause – At the moment Officer Bronsord observed the hand-to-hand exchange, was that Reasonable Suspicion or Probable Cause? If the hand-to-hand exchange was Probable Cause, then Mr. Partin may have been immediately searched, because the doctrine of Probable Cause permits law enforcement to arrest or search.  In this case if the hand-to-hand exchange was Probable Cause Mr. Partin’s pockets may have been searched. For more on the Probable Cause Doctrine see: https://www.objectivelyreasonable.com/category/probable-cause/
  4. Pre-Sent Arms! Officer Bronsord should be highly commended. He was patrolling a high crime area, where narcotic sales are commonplace – the Motel 6.  Officer Bronsord observed the hand-to-hand exchange and immediately acted upon those behaviors.  Well done Officer [now Sergeant] Bronsord!

Does your agency train on Investigative Detention?

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and Objectively Reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.