STATE v. TORRENCE BENTON, SC 18850
Judicial District of New Haven at G.A. 23
Criminal; Search and Seizure; Whether Cyclists Should be Treated the Same as Motor Vehicle Operators for Purposes of Determining the Legality of Police Stops; Whether the Police had a Reasonable and Articulable Suspicion Justifying an Investigatory Stop. In April, 2010, two uniformed police officers were patrolling on foot in New Haven, monitoring gang activity. The officers were aware of violent feuding between two rival gangs in the area, the R2 gang and the Bloods gang. The officers noticed the defendant and two other men coming towards them on bicycles. Their attire suggested that they might belong to the Bloods gang. The officers stepped off the sidewalk and onto the road a few feet ahead of the group. The defendant immediately uttered an expletive, veered away from the officers and attempted to accelerate away. When the officers commanded the defendant to stop, he ignored the command and continued to flee. The officers chased down the defendant and, after a short struggle, recovered a loaded handgun from his person. The defendant was charged with illegal possession of a firearm. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that an investigative stop was initiated when the officers stepped in front of him and that the stop was illegal under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), because, at that time, the officers lacked a reasonable and articulable suspicion that he was engaged in criminal activity. The court denied the motion to suppress, concluding that the defendant was not stopped or seized until the officers commanded him to stop. At that point, the court opined, the officers, based on the defendant's conduct and their own experience, had reasonable suspicion sufficient to justify an investigatory stop. The court next determined that the subsequent arrest and search of the defendant was also lawful, stating that the officers had probable cause to believe that the defendant had committed the crime of interfering with a police officer once he ignored the lawful command to stop. Subsequently, the defendant entered a plea of nolo contendere to the charges, conditioned on his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. On appeal, the defendant claims that the trial court wrongly likened the officers' act of stepping into the street in front of his bicycle to a consensual encounter between a foot patrol officer conducting community policing and a pedestrian or neighborhood resident. The defendant points out that General Statutes § 14-286a confers on cyclists the same rights as motorists, and he argues that there can be no consensual encounter between the police and the operator of a moving bicycle. The defendant also claims that the police lacked reasonable suspicion to seize him by commanding him to stop. He argues that other factors—including recent gang activity in the area, his clothing and his actions after he saw the police—did not give rise to reasonable suspicion that he was engaged in any criminal activity.