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Mass Detention to Catch Robber was Reasonable, 10th Cir. Rules

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 10, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When a Wells Fargo branch was robbed in Aurora, Colorado, police took it seriously, stopping every car at a nearby intersection and holding them at gunpoint while they attempted to locate the pilfered cash. The mass detention of 29 people lasted over two hours and led to two lawsuits; one by fourteen people who were detained and another by the bank robber, who was caught in the stop.

If that's not bizarre enough, consider how the robbery itself. Recently fired violinist and music teacher Christian Paetsch road to the bank on a stolen bicycle, donned a beekeeper's hat and held up the bank while blasting an air horn. When he left, he took $26,000 in cash and a hidden tracking beacon.

He'd returned to his car by the time police placed the street on lockdown. In an appeal from his conviction, he argued that the mass detention was an unreasonable search and seizure.

Was Mass Detention Appropriately Tailored?

Paetsch argued that the evidence gathered from the stop must be suppressed, as the barricade was unreasonable at its inception, in its duration and in the means used to carry it out. The court addressed Paetsch's Fourth Amendment search and seizure claims in two stages: the initial mass detention and his individual seizure once officers suspected him.

A group seizure must be "appropriately tailored" to legitimate ends in order to be constitutional. The Tenth found the mass seizure to be appropriate to catch "a fleeing, armed bank robber," at least to the point when police began suspecting Paetsch.

The court applied caselaw generally from cases involving roadblocks and checkpoints. The found that the 5% "hit rate" of the mass detention -- finding one criminal out of 20 cars stopped -- was higher than roadblocks the Supreme Court had ruled were effective. However, unlike programmatic check points, the "hit" here does not just incrementally increase public safety, it removes the threat all together.

Individualized Suspicion Demands Individual Analysis

Once the police suspected Paetsch, the Tenth held, he could not rely on later deprivations to the rest of the crowd's rights to argue unreasonableness. At that point, the analysis becomes individualized and personal. Applied here, the court found that Paetsch's behavior -- refusing to comply with police orders -- provided reasonable suspicion to detain him in a Terry stop.

The court upheld the admissibility of the evidence gathered from the stop. Whether the mass detention was reasonable after Paetsch was identified will have to be addressed in the remaining lawsuit -- the one not brought by bank robbers.

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