Prostitution Case Overturned for Lack of Reasonable Suspicion or Probable Cause | Fort Worth Prostitution Defense Attorneys
State v. Johnson – San Antonio 4th Court of Appeals (2015)
At approximately 9:00 p.m., San Antonio police officer Christopher Connelly and his partner observed Shamar Johnson “pacing” on the sidewalk in a dimly lit area near two gay clubs. Officer Connelly’s testimony differs from Johnson’s in some respects, but there is general agreement on the relevant facts. The area was known for gay prostitution. Based on their belief that Johnson had no reason to be loitering in the area, Officer Connelly and his partner pulled up to Johnson in their car, exited the vehicle and began questioning Johnson.
When Johnson saw the car, he stopped. According to Officer Connelly, Johnson appeared to be nervous and put his hands in his pockets. Johnson said that the presence of the officers on either side of him was intimidating. Officer Connelly instructed Johnson to put his hands on the patrol car and asked Johnson if he had anything illegal in his possession. Again, Johnson said that he did not believe he could leave and had to do exactly what the officers said. Johnson told the officers they could search him. The officers found a plastic bag containing cocaine and arrested Johnson.
Johnson moved to suppress the evidence the officers found because the detention and search were unlawful. The trial court found Officer Connelly’s testimony “credible” and denied the motion to suppress. Johnson subsequently struck a plea bargain and pled no contest to the charge of possession of a controlled substance.
Johnson appealed the trial court’s decision. Consistent with the standard for reviewing a trial court’s action on a motion to suppress, the Court of Appeals deferred almost entirely to the trial judge, who was in the best position to assess credibility of witnesses, regarding the facts of the case, but made its own determination regarding how the law applied to the facts.
In a four-step analysis, the Court of Appeals found the officers’ encounter with Johnson constituted an unlawful seizure and the motion to suppress should have been granted.
(1) Both sides agreed that the officers’ encounter with Johnson was not consensual. The State admitted there was no support to argue the search was consensual.
(2) The state argued the officers’ detention of Johnson was based upon reasonable suspicion, which requires the existing of specific facts leading an officer to conclude that a person has committed or is about to commit a crime. The State cited the facts that Johnson was in a dimly lit area known for male prostitution and Johnson’s “loitering” looked like someone who was engaged in prostitution. The Court of Appeals disagreed, concluding that being present in a dimly lit area, even an area known for prostitution, does not provide reasonable suspicion that an individual is a prostitute. Because the officers had no reasonable suspicion to detain Johnson, Johnson’s detention was a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
(3) The Court considered whether Johnson’s consent to search was an act of free will. The court noted the consent occurred shortly after Johnson was told to place his hands on the car and there were no intervening circumstances to lessen the “taint” of the improper detention. Although nothing indicated the officers intended to commit an unlawful detention, the Court found Johnson’s consent was not an exercise of his free will and therefore did not remove the taint of the unlawful detention.
(4) After determining the trial court should have granted the motion to suppress, the Court of Appeals considered whether that error made any difference in Johnson’s punishment. Although Johnson accepted a plea bargain rather than go to trial, the Court of Appeals believed the denial of the motion to suppress gave the State leverage in the process and may have contributed to Johnson’s giving up his right to a trial in order to obtain a favorable punishment recommendation.
Many people believe they are required to cooperate in any encounter with police until the police officers terminate the encounter. However, Johnson v. Texas makes it clear police officers do not have unlimited authority to detain an individual unless they have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or is about to be committed. While police officers may see reasonable suspicion where others would not and trial courts may agree, higher court decisions have set a standard for reasonable suspicion which limits police ability to detain citizens who, like Shamar Johnson, just appear to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.