In 2010, the Starkville chief of police called the police station and requested someone investigate a man walking two pit bulls near Louisville Street. The chief of police noted that the man did not seem to have control over the dogs, which posed a potential danger to a pedestrian in the area. Sergeant Shawn Word responded to the call.
When he reached Geno Harrell, Word rolled down his window and attempted to make conversation with Harrell. Harrell responded but did not stop walking. Word called to Harrell to hold on so he could get Harrell’s name and social security number to complete the paperwork regarding the call. Harrell then became irate and demanded Word’s name and badge number. Word then exited his car and again attempted to explain the need for Harrell’s information.
Word informed Harrell multiple times that if he would give his name and social security number, he could be out of there in 20, 30 seconds. As Harrell became more agitated, so did the dogs. Word instructed Harrell to sit on the grass because the dogs were calmer when Harrell was seated. Harrell refused to remain seated.
Eventually, animal control arrived, and Harrell gave his information to Word. Word issued Harrell an arrest citation for disorderly conduct and failure to obey the command of a law enforcement officer. He was convicted of disorderly conduct and failure to obey the command of a law enforcement officer and fined $500. On appeal, Harrell argued the stop was not based on reasonable suspicion. MCOA agreed with Harrell and reversed.
Word performed an investigative stop. The MSC said in Eaddy that for an investigative stop to be lawful under the Fourth Amendment, the stop must be brief, and the officer must have reasonable suspicion, grounded in specific and articulable facts that allows the officer to conclude the suspect is wanted in connection with criminal behavior. Articulated another way, the officer must have a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity may be afoot.
Neither the chief of police, who made the call, nor Word, who responded to the call, stated he had any reasonable suspicion that Harrell was involved in any type of criminal behavior. At trial, testimony was given regarding certain city ordinances demanding specific requirements to own pit bulls.
However, no testimony was given that Harrell was in violation of any of these ordinances. Even assuming Harrell was violating a city ordinance by walking his pit bulls on leashes, Word testified that he observed the dogs and determined that the dogs were not vicious. This occurred prior to stopping Harrell.
When Word stopped Harrell to obtain his name and social security number, he did not have reasonable suspicion that any crime – even disobeying a city ordinance – had occurred or was about to occur. Harrell’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated because Word lacked any reasonable suspicion to believe Harrell was engaged or had engaged in criminal conduct.
If the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to perform the investigatory stop, then evidence obtained during the investigatory stop is deemed fruit of the poisonous tree and is inadmissible. Since Word did not possess the requisite reasonable suspicion that Harrell was engaged or had engaged in criminal conduct, Harrell’s statements and actions after the unlawful stop are fruit of the poisonous tree and are, therefore, inadmissible.