Does a “Felony Stop” Require Reasonable Suspicion or Probable Cause?

Routine traffic stops involve an officer turning their emergency lights on, pulling a vehicle over to the side of the road, and the officer calmly walks up to the vehicle. In a felony traffic stop (“felony stop”), the officer(s) usually stay back at their squad cars, draw their guns, get on their loudspeaker and order the driver and any passengers out of the vehicle. They often demand that the occupants get on the ground with their hands visible, so they can be searched and potentially handcuffed.

Law enforcement often uses felony-stop tactics when they believe someone inside the vehicle is dangerous, such as a suspect on the loose for a violent crime or fugitive. Felony stops have also been used in a variety of other situations, even drastically unjustified ones, which has drawn the ire of over-policing and social injustice across the nation.

In court, the question arises of what level of suspicion does an office need to perform a felony stop. Recently, in State v. Reynolds, the Minnesota Court of Appeals addressed the issue. A routine traffic stop is akin to a Terry stop. In Terry stops, all that is required is reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity. In Reynolds, there was not a dispute that the officers had reasonable articulable suspicion. Reynolds argued that probable cause was needed, which is a higher standard than reasonable articulable suspicion, because the felony stop equated to an arrest.

To determine whether a lawful traffic stop under Terry turns into an arrest requiring probable cause, courts analyze the intensity, scope, and duration of the stop. In Reynolds, the court considered the short duration of the encounter, which was only four minutes. The court also reasoned that the reason for the stop (potentially armed homicide and robbery suspects) justified the intensity of the stop to protect officer safety.

The dissenting opinion in Reynolds took issue with the majority’s analysis of how reasonable the intensity of the stop was. The dissent believed the stop was unreasonable in its intensity, which violated Reynolds’s Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. An initially valid stop may become invalid if it becomes intolerable in its intensity or scope. The dissent reasoned that the suspicion of criminal activity for Reynolds was thin (he was at a wake of a recent homicide victim and maybe had a handgun in his sweatshirt); the number of officers involved was intense; the lack of need for immediate action; and the aggressiveness of the police tactics. There was also an opportunity for law enforcement to make a less threatening stop.  Under the totality of the circumstances, the dissent believed the nature and intrusion into Reynolds’s Fourth Amendment rights was great.

Unfortunately, there is not a simple answer to whether a felony stop requires reasonable suspicion or probable cause. Each stop has to be evaluated in its intensity, scope, and duration. The dissent adds aggressiveness of police tactics into the totality-of-the-circumstances test, which appears to be a relevant and important factor in our time.

Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense lawyer and DWI attorney in Minnesota. Super Lawyers named him a Rising Star for the past five years; and the National Trial Lawyer’s Organization named him a Top 40 Under 40 Trial Lawyer the past seven years. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. Drug Crimes Attorney Woodbury MN; Criminal Defense Lawyer Woodbury MN; and Drug Crimes Attorney Minnesota.

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