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State v. Young

May 2, 1997


Appeal from Superior Court of Pierce County. Docket No: 95-1-01633-4. Date filed: 06/30/95. Judge signing: Hon. Donald H. Thompson.

Authored by Elaine M. Houghton. Concurring: J. Dean Morgan, Visiting Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Houghton

HOUGHTON, C.J. -- Kevin Young was present in a high crime area at night. A police officer made a "social contact" with Young and ran a criminal records check on his name. After learning that Young had a history of drug offenses, the officer returned to the scene and shined his spotlight on Young. As Young walked away from the officer, he discarded contraband materials behind a tree. The State appeals the trial court's suppression of evidence based upon its Conclusion that the officer's illumination of Young with his spotlight constituted a "seizure" under the Fourth Amendment. We hold that Young was not "seized" by the floodlight illumination and therefore reverse and remand for further proceedings.


The facts are not in dispute. On August 24, 1994, Pierce County Deputy Sheriff Robert Carpenter was on patrol in Tacoma. At approximately 9:40 p.m., the deputy saw Young standing at the corner of Chicago and Lincoln Avenue S.W., an area known for high drug activity.

Although the deputy did not find Young's activity suspicious, he made "social contact" with Young and asked him his name. As the deputy drove away, he requested a computer criminal records check and discovered that Young had an extensive criminal background involving drugs. In his rear view mirror, the officer then observed Young walk to the middle of the street, as if to see if the deputy was leaving.

The deputy turned his patrol car around and drove back toward Young. As he approached, the deputy activated the car spotlight, illuminating Young and the surrounding area. Young walked rapidly toward some trees, tossed "an apparent package or something" behind a tree, walked quickly away from the trees, and then resumed a normal walk down the sidewalk.

Believing that Young was involved in drug related activity, or at least littering, the deputy detained Young and retrieved the object. The deputy recovered a half soda can charred on the bottom and containing a hard, crystallized, tan substance. Based upon his experience, the deputy believed that this substance was "freebased" crack cocaine.

The officer arrested and searched Young and found a copper colored pipe and a lighter. Young was charged with the unlawful manufacturing of an imitation controlled substance under RCW 69.52.030(1). *fn1 Young moved under CrR 3.6 to suppress all evidence gained from the arrest. The trial court granted Young's motion, finding that Young was "seized at the point that the deputy illuminated [him] with the spotlight." The trial court also found that at the time of Young's "seizure," the deputy did not have a reasonable articulable suspicion to believe Young was involved in criminal activity. Thus, the trial court reasoned, the seizure was improper and all evidence discovered as a result of the detention was deemed inadmissible. The State appeals.


Appellate review of a Conclusion of law, based upon findings of fact, is limited to determining whether the trial court's findings are supported by substantial evidence, and whether those findings in turn support the Conclusions of law. State v. Graffius, 74 Wash. App. 23, 29, 871 P.2d 1115 (1994). The determination of whether a seizure has occurred under the Fourth Amendment is a mixed question of law and fact. State v. Thorn, 129 Wash. 2d 347, 351, 917 P.2d 108 (1996). The circumstances surrounding an encounter between a police officer and a citizen involve a factual determination. The ultimate resolution of whether these circumstances amount to a seizure under the Fourth Amendment, however, is a question of law. Thorn, 129 Wash. 2d at 351 (citing Martinez v. Nygaard, 831 F.2d 822, 826 (9th Cir. 1987)).


The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington State Constitution provide that all citizens are to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and not disturbed in their private affairs. *fn2 Searches and seizures must be supported by probable cause, or be conducted pursuant to one of the narrowly drawn exceptions to that rule. State v. Hudson, 124 Wash. 2d 107, 112, 874 P.2d 160 (1994). All seizures of persons, including brief detentions, must be reasonable. State v. Glover, 116 Wash. 2d 509, 513, 806 P.2d 760 (1991).

Fourth Amendment protection is implicated only when an encounter between a police officer and a citizen rises to the level of "seizure." A person is "seized" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment "when, by means of physical force or a show of authority, his freedom of movement is restrained [and] . . . in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he [or she] was not free to leave." State v. Stroud, 30 Wash. App. 392, 394-95, 634 P.2d 316 (1981), review denied, 96 Wash. 2d 1025 (1982)(citing United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 100 S. Ct. 1870, 64 L. Ed. 2d 497 (1980)). The burden of proving a seizure occurred is upon the accused. Thorn, 129 Wash. 2d at ...

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