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Law School Case Brief

Commonwealth v. Belfield - No. 0243-07-1, 2007 Va. App. LEXIS 256 (Ct. App. June 26, 2007)


The Fourth Amendment protects persons from unreasonable searches and seizures by government officials. Obviously, not all personal intercourse between policemen and citizens involves "seizures" of persons. A consensual encounter occurs when police officers approach persons in public places to ask them questions, provided a reasonable person would understand that he or she could refuse to cooperate. Even when law enforcement officers have no basis for suspecting a particular individual, they may ask for identification provided they do not induce cooperation by coercive means.


On April 29, 2006, Officer Shelton, acting upon a radio dispatch that had reported possible drug activity, approached a car and asked Delphine Belfield why she was sitting at that location. Shelton proceeded to ask for any identification from Belfield, at which time she provided with him an I.D. card. Officer Shelton ran Belfield’s identification information through the police records system and discovered that there was a warrant on file for her arrest. He then placed her under arrest pursuant to that warrant. During the search incident to her arrest, Officer Shelton discovered cocaine. Prior to trial, Belfield moved to suppress the cocaine discovered in the search incident to her arrest. She argued that she was illegally seized when she was detained by Officer Shelton and asked for her identification. She contended that the seizure was illegal as it was based solely on an uncorroborated anonymous tip and that Officer Shelton lacked any reasonable articulable suspicion to believe that she was engaged in criminal activity. Belfield further asserted that the cocaine recovered in the search incident to her arrest was inadmissible as a fruit of the illegal seizure. The trial court granted Belfield's motion to suppress and found that Belfield’s seizure was based solely on an uncorroborated anonymous tip, lacking sufficient reliability to establish reasonable articulable suspicion that she was engaged in criminal activity. Accordingly, it concluded that Belfield was illegally seized when she was asked to produce her identification, rendering all the evidence recovered pursuant to the search following her arrest inadmissible. On appeal, the Commonwealth of Virginia contended that the initial encounter between Officer Shelton and Belfield was consensual and the encounter never lost its consensual nature until Belfield was arrested.


Was the initial encounter between the officer and defendant was consensual and if yes, did the encounter lose its consensual nature anytime before defendant was arrested?


Yes, the initial encounter was consensul; No, the encounter continued to be under defendant's consent until the time she was arrested.


The appellate court held that Belfield was not seized for purposes of the Fourth Amendment at the time Officer Shelton parked his car 20 to 30 feet from the car in which Belfield was sitting, asked her why she was there, and asked for and received identification. Although Officer Shelton arrived in a marked patrol car, its emergency lights were not activated. The record showed that the car was not blocked from leaving the parking lot. Officer Shelton did not tell Belfield that he specifically suspected her of engaging in illegal drug activity and did not ask her to step out the car. Once the officer learned of the outstanding warrant commanding the arrest, the encounter became a lawful seizure and evidence found during the search incident to the arrest was lawfully obtained.

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