The Georgia Supreme Court ruled 6-1 for prosecutors in October 2014 in a Fourth Amendment case about a late-night police encounter in which a divided Court of Appeals had reached the opposite result.
In 2013, the Georgia Court of Appeals voted 4-3 in favor of a man claiming his rights against unreasonable search and seizure were violated when a police officer tried to stop him while he was walking on the grounds of an elementary school. The man fled but was caught, subdued with a Taser and charged with a drug crime based on evidence police found along the route he took in running away.
In this case, State v. Walker, a Warner Robbins officer was searching an area around an elementary school, looking for a suspect described as an African-American man in dark clothing who had been trying to steal a motorcycle nearby. The officer saw Ernest Walker Sr., a black man who was wearing a blue sweatshirt and light-colored pants, walking off the school’s property.
The officer told Walker to take his hands out of his pockets. Instead, Walker yelled that he was just trying to get home and ran away. The officer eventually caught up to Walker, and, when Walker again refused a command to take his hands out of his pockets, the officer Tasered him.
Here, the evidence should have been suppressed because the man effectively had been seized, unconstitutionally, when the officer ordered the man to take his hands out of his pockets without having any reasonable suspicion the man had committed a crime. Once the officer told Walker to remove his hands from his pockets, the encounter clearly turned into a stop that needed to be supported by reasonable, articulable suspicion, which the officer didn’t have.
However, in reversing the Court of Appeals, the Georgia Supreme Court held that the officer’s ordering the man to remove his hands from his pockets didn’t constitute a seizure, given that the man hadn’t complied with the order. This seems to defy common sense. You can seize a person whether they comply with the seizure or not.
The elder statesman, Justice Robert Benham, was the sole justice to dissent from the Court’s holding that this illegal stop, search, and seizure was permissible.
Why does this obscure case in middle Georgia even matter to the citizens of Georgia? I realize that most folks are not going to find themselves at an elementary school in the middle of the night. I doubt that anyone in our community knows Mr. Walker. He may even be a career criminal.
However, cases like this have a huge impact on the rights that everyone enjoys under the United States Constitution. This opinion suggests that a police officer can stop anyone on the street for almost any reason. This line of thinking is directly opposed to numerous cases in Georgia that have held that a person can go about their business if he or she is not committing or attempting to commit a crime.
Freedom of movement in our society is a fundamental right that separates Georgia from “police states.” The 4th Amendment was passed by our Founding Fathers not to protect the rights of criminals. These men, who were used to the minions of the King ransacking their homes and arresting them for no reason, believed that this Amendment was vitally important to protect the citizens of the new Republic from the overreaching power of the King, or in America, the government.
Remember, when we violate the rights of the most despicable criminal known to man, we in essence set the stage for violating the rights of law abiding citizens in our state.