The D.C. Court of Appeals on Thursday overturned the juvenile adjudication of a teenager arrested for disorderly conduct and drug possession in 2005 after a police officer took his money and he began yelling for help.
Officer Robert Elliott was patrolling the Sursum Corda neighborhood, described in court papers as “a densely populated residential area known to him for high drug activity and gun violence,” when he noticed a group of men standing on the corner, several of whom the cop recognized as having prior drug-trafficking arrests, according to court papers.
As Elliott passed by in his cruiser that December night, a teenager, identified in court papers as T.L., called out to him, “Hey Elliott, what’s up?” The officer got out of his car and approached the teen. Everyone else on the corner promptly split. “You got any drugs or guns on [you]?” the cop asked, according to court papers. To which, the teen replied, “Yo, Officer Elliott, you know me. I ain’t got no drugs or guns….Go ahead and search me.”
The officer graciously accepted his invitation, removing two large “wads” of cash from the teenager’s coat and pants pockets. The officer explained that he was seizing the money because “it was a high-drug trafficking area and it was a large amount of currency to have on your person,” according to court papers. The officer also said he would place the cash “on the book” at the police station and the teen could “possibly” get it back if he could produce a pay stub.
The teenager began yelling, “They’re taking my money….I got that money working at McDonald’s,” and loudly calling for his mother to come help him. Court papers indicate “some ten to fifteen people left their townhouses…to see what was happening.”
The officer considered it “very dangerous” to attract a crowd—”especially in Sursum Coda,” according to court papers. He later testified that suspects sometimes incite crowds to divert and overwhelm police in order to escape.
Elliott arrested the teen for disorderly conduct. A subsequent search of his person turned up 24 zip-lock bags of crack cocaine hidden in his pants.
At trial, the teenager’s lawyer tried to suppress the cocaine, arguing that police lacked probable cause to arrest him and later moved for acquittal on the disorderly conduct charge “on the ground that he did not incite the crowd of onlookers or threaten to occasion a breach of the peace,” court papers show. A trial court, however, found the teen guilty on both counts.
The appellate court today disagreed, noting that “yelling for help or screaming in fear or outrage when one is being (or has just been) robbed…on a residential street in the middle of the night may not be unreasonable….[Y]elling at the top of one’s lungs to rouse the surrounding populace and obtain relief would not amount to a breach of the peace as we understand that term.”
The court further noted, “We cannot overlook the fact that Officer Elliott had no right to take [the teenager’s] money when he did. [The teen] may have consented to be searched, but he did not consent to the warrantless seizure of the cash he was carrying in his pockets….[M]ere possession of cash, ‘even a lot of it,’ did not give the officer probable cause to seize it (or to arrest T.L.)”
Both guilty counts have been reversed. “Theoretically,” according to Thursday’s ruling, “the government is at liberty to retry T.L. on the drug charge, but it will have to do so without the cocaine seized from his person in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.”