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Mistake Of Fact By Police Not Reasonable For Finding Of Reasonable Suspicion Under Fourth Amendment Search And Seizure


tumblr_miaiuikwRt1qdeuyro1_1280Mistake Of Fact By Police Not Reasonable For Finding Of Reasonable Suspicion Under Fourth Amendment Search And Seizure.

United States v. Severne Watson, ___F3d___, 2015 WL 2402528

Second Circuit Court of Appeals

Decided May 21, 2015

Blog by Stephen N. Preziosi, Esq. Criminal Appeals Lawyer

“To permit a rule that allows the police to search any black male who is roughly similar in height, age and skin tone to another black male charged with a crime is unreasonable on its face.”

Issue: Whether there was reasonable suspicion under the Fourth Amendment when the police made a mistake of fact by searching the defendant in this case because he looked vaguely similar to an identified suspect they were searching for.

manhattan-skyline-9619-editSummary of Facts: Government made an interlocutory appeal of the U.S. District Court (Southern District) order granting defendant’s motion to suppress physical evidence. At the time of the search of Watson and the seizure of physical evidence the police officer was pursuing a different suspect, for whom Watson was mistaken. The trial court found that the physical disparities between the two men were too significant for the mistake of identity to be objectively reasonable. The Government made an interlocutory appeal and argued that the two men looked sufficiently alike to make the search reasonable. During the street encounter, the officer asked Watson for his identity. Watson produced valid identification with his name on it. The officer proceeded to frisk him and uncovered a gun and 27 bags of crack cocaine.

Author’s Note:

the Second Circuit found that this mistake of fact would not support a finding of probable cause for the search under the Fourth Amendment; it did not hold that a mistake of fact in general would always fail to support a finding of reasonable suspicion. The Court specifically looked at whether the mistake of fact made by the police was reasonable given the circumstances. The Court found that when comparing the physical characteristics of the two men, there were too many disparities for the mistake of fact to be reasonable. Compare this the the New York Court of Appeals decision in April 2015, where the Court found that a police officer’s mistake of law must be objectively reasonable to support a finding of probable cause for a traffic stop. People v. Guthrie – The New York Court of Appeals puts another nail in the coffin of the Fourth Amendment: Police Officers Mistaken Understanding Of The Law Justifies The Stop.

14600834_mlLegal Analysis: The Second Circuit reviews district court findings of fact for clear error and reviews the district court’s legal determination of lack of reasonable suspicion de novo. The Second Circuit held that once reasonable suspicion exists to detain traveler, the detention can continue only for the period of time necessary to either verify or dispel the suspicion. The authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the reason for the stop are completed. In this case the reason for the stop was to determine whether Watson was the other suspect they were looking for. The factual findings of the lower court were that it was not reasonable to believe that the police officers mistook Watson for this other suspect because there was not a reasonable physical resemblance between the two.

The Second Circuit held that the mistake of fact was not reasonable given the different height, weight, skin tone and age of the defendant and the other identified suspect. The Circuit Court refused to adopt a rule that would allow the police to search any black male who is of roughly similar height, age and skin tome to another black male charged with a crime, finding that was an unreasonable application of the law.


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