PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Rickey Dale Charles staggered out of his Jackson County home one April night in 2010 to chat with police about his pickup, which was just then wedged nose-down in a ditch.
Charles had truck keys in his pocket. The truck was registered to him. And he was, by his own admission, stone drunk.
When a Jackson County sheriff’s deputy asked him to step out of his home and perform field sobriety tests, he complied. After that conversation, the deputy decided that Charles had crashed his truck while parking it drunk, and arrested him.
The Oregon Court of Appeals on Wednesday overturned Charles’ conviction, arguing that the search was illegal. Charles himself, the court ruled, was illegally seized by the deputy.
The decision underscored the court’s recent string of rulings clarifying acceptable methods for Oregon law enforcement to conduct searches. The court has previously held that searches can be illegal if police stop behind a car and don’t let the driver leave, or if police incorrectly assess the risks to their own safety from a suspect.
Prosecutors for the state argued that the conversation held on Charles’ front porch didn’t amount to a police traffic stop, so there could be no illegal search and seizure.
Oregon courts divide police-civilian interactions into three categories, stemming from a 1997 ruling. The first kind is a simple encounter, which doesn’t require constitutional justification. At the other end of the spectrum are full-on arrests in which a person is restrained and his constitutional rights read to him.
The murky area in between is labeled a “stop,” and it’s from this category that most legal challenges arise. The courts have ruled that the clearest way to tell an encounter from a stop is either an officer’s use of physical force or “through some show of authority,” according to the ruling handed down Wednesday.
The standard established by the Oregon Supreme Court is whether a reasonable person would believe that an officer intentionally interfered with the person’s “liberty or freedom of movement.”
The question before the court, then, was whether the officer’s conduct constituted a stop.
In his majority opinion for the three-judge appeals court panel, Timothy Sercombe wrote that no one thing the deputy did would be considered a stop. It wasn’t a stop, for instance, when the deputy knocked on Charles’ door, nor when he called for him to come out of the house, walked with him to the front of the house and asked to pat him down.
But, taken together, the deputy’s conduct reflected a stop, the court ruled, and that stop was illegal.
“It is the totality of the circumstances here that would have conveyed to a reasonable person that he or she was not free to end the encounter and depart,” Sercombe wrote.
Judge Erika Hadlock dissented, saying the deputy’s actions did not amount to a stop. The court now holds that a police officer’s words or actions that indicate the beginning of a criminal investigation equates to a stop.
But Hadlock disagreed with that line of thought, citing a 2013 Oregon Supreme Court decision that said a police officer who simply asks for citizen cooperation while conducting a police investigation doesn’t constitute a stop.
Charles’ drunken driving conviction was reversed and the case was remanded to Jackson County Circuit Court.
Reach reporter Nigel Duara on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nigelduara
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.