City Desk

Screaming in Sursum Corda No Cause for Warrantless Searches, Court Rules

The D.C. Court of Appeals on Thursday overturned the juvenile adjudication of a teenager arrested for disorderly conduct and drug possession in 2005 after a police officer took his money and he began yelling for help.

Officer Robert Elliott was patrolling the Sursum Corda neighborhood, described in court papers as "a densely populated residential area known to him for high drug activity and gun violence," when he noticed a group of men standing on the corner, several of whom the cop recognized as having prior drug-trafficking arrests, according to court papers.

As Elliott passed by in his cruiser that December night, a teenager, identified in court papers as T.L., called out to him, "Hey Elliott, what's up?" The officer got out of his car and approached the teen. Everyone else on the corner promptly split. "You got any drugs or guns on [you]?" the cop asked, according to court papers. To which, the teen replied, "Yo, Officer Elliott, you know me. I ain't got no drugs or guns....Go ahead and search me."

The officer graciously accepted his invitation, removing two large "wads" of cash from the teenager's coat and pants pockets. The officer explained that he was seizing the money because "it was a high-drug trafficking area and it was a large amount of currency to have on your person," according to court papers. The officer also said he would place the cash "on the book" at the police station and the teen could "possibly" get it back if he could produce a pay stub.

The teenager began yelling, "They're taking my money....I got that money working at McDonald's," and loudly calling for his mother to come help him. Court papers indicate "some ten to fifteen people left their see what was happening."

The officer considered it "very dangerous" to attract a crowd–"especially in Sursum Coda," according to court papers. He later testified that suspects sometimes incite crowds to divert and overwhelm police in order to escape.

Elliott arrested the teen for disorderly conduct. A subsequent search of his person turned up 24 zip-lock bags of crack cocaine hidden in his pants.

At trial, the teenager's lawyer tried to suppress the cocaine, arguing that police lacked probable cause to arrest him and later moved for acquittal on the disorderly conduct charge "on the ground that he did not incite the crowd of onlookers or threaten to occasion a breach of the peace," court papers show. A trial court, however, found the teen guilty on both counts.

The appellate court today disagreed, noting that "yelling for help or screaming in fear or outrage when one is being (or has just been) robbed...on a residential street in the middle of the night may not be unreasonable....[Y]elling at the top of one's lungs to rouse the surrounding populace and obtain relief would not amount to a breach of the peace as we understand that term."

The court further noted, "We cannot overlook the fact that Officer Elliott had no right to take [the teenager's] money when he did. [The teen] may have consented to be searched, but he did not consent to the warrantless seizure of the cash he was carrying in his pockets....[M]ere possession of cash, 'even a lot of it,' did not give the officer probable cause to seize it (or to arrest T.L.)"

Both guilty counts have been reversed. "Theoretically," according to Thursday's ruling, "the government is at liberty to retry T.L. on the drug charge, but it will have to do so without the cocaine seized from his person in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights."

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  • BennyRed

    The police, especially the ones "patroling" Sursum, are just criminals themselves. They terrorize the residents. I'm not defending the drug dealers who infest the community, but I know for a fact that the drug trade happens openly in front of the police and little is done to stop it. Why do you think this officer was so well known by the dealer and the dealer wasn't scared of him? Elliot got greedier than usual and took more than he normally would take. The only difference between the dealers and the cops in Sursum is that the cops can carry guns legally.

  • Adrian Bent-Me

    I wonder what the illegal immigration population is in this neighborhood.

  • Typical DC BS

    Looks like the courts continue to ignore the big fact of "common sense". I'm sure this nitwit teenager had the cash legitimately. And if you believe that, I've got some nice real estate in Florida that's only wet some of the time.

  • Wendy Glenn

    @Typical DC BS; Fruit from a poisones tree. Violating the law as an officer is the same as a criminal doing the same. Officers are their to protect and serve, not prejudge and steal. How many of these officers have taken money and kept it and never put it on the books, so again, who is the criminal. Two wrongs don't make it right, especially when you are an office of the law. Certain officers request high crime low rent areas so that they can get away with murder, theft, rape, and other offenses.

  • Think Beforeyouspeak

    @ the gross ignorance shown on these comments daily: Maybe this officer is so well known to the drug dealers because the DC judicial system has done nothing but fail time and time again in convicting these individuals in the first place due to stipulations such as this. It's pretty easy to recognize someone who has arrested you for the same offense 4 times; especially when you are offered a quick plea bargain in order to avoid, god forbid, a real jury trial, and are released the next afternoon. OR the fact that the police's hands are often tied due to people who want to feel safe in the city, as long as it doesn't ever hassle or affect them. Those who think the Police are criminals and "get away with theft, rape, and other offenses" will also be the first to call when they need help. The hypocrisy and arm chair criticism is sickening; if you hate the police so much- don't call.

  • Typical DC BS

    @Wendy Glenn, while the cops may do as you say (and every profession has their crooks), they didn't steal his money in the incident described above. And they did subsequently find crack cocaine on the teenager as well.

    Don't know what neighborhood you live in, but if a teenager has $945 on him (read that elsewhere) and claims he got it working at McDonalds, he's a lying sack of shit. And if he knows the cop BY NAME, and the cop knows this kid deals drugs, I would say the nitwit teenager should be getting stopped every day until he stops hanging out in the street and dealing drugs.

  • BennyRed

    Think Beforeyouspeak- if you are naive to think that some of these cops aren't corrupt- you're as stupid as we are. I guarantee you that some of them would have "confiscated" that money and never turned it in because they know that these dealers will never show up to collect it. If these cops followed the law themselves, slums like the Cordas wouldn't exist...

  • BennyRetarded

    LOL @ Benny...seriously where do people come up with this stuff?? "If these cops followed the law themselves slums like the Cordas wouldn't exist" ROFL!! You're so right Benny...why on earth didn't anyone think of that before? We'd love for you to shed some light on the Iraq and Afghanistan crises you wondrous think tank you.

    I'll wager that Benny is either a sursum corda resident slug OR a disgruntled, police hating white professional office worker much like the character on office space rolls up his window when someone selling flowers walks by him on the sidewalk.

  • BennyRed

    BennyRetarded- yep, I have a solution for you on Iraq and Afghanistan- stay the fuck out of their country. I've lived in neighborhoods like Sursum all of my life and know what happens. You wouldn't have a fucking clue. Police officers aren't humans and don't make mistakes. Police officers aren't corruptable. Police Officers always puts the public good before themselves. Yeah, I'm the naive one here.

  • AngelWithoutWings

    They are corrupt. who knows where he got his money. Innocent until proven guilty. I now Sursum Corda Court as well as I know the corrupt judicial system in D.C. No use pointing fingers when we could get our heads together and try to do something about changing it, fixing the problem. Name calling never worked before and will not work now. People need our help so as decent human beings who claim to love one another and care, this forum should include ways to help, don't you agree?
    There use to be all types of programs for children there. Where is the money going that is sent to DC for these programs. Lets find a way to make sure it gets to neighborhoods like this. Talk to the people and find out what it is they are missing that has them here and then use our minds and hearts to figure out what to do next. It takes love, hope, and faith people! We have to start some place.