Every year, the University of Iowa College of Law hosts an Iowa Supreme Court case at the law school. This year, students had the pleasure of witnessing State of Iowa v. Jaheim Romaine Cyrus. The case involved a nineteen-year-old, black male parked on the side of a street in a residential neighborhood.[1] A police officer arrived on the scene in response to reported “suspicious activity.”[2] The officer pulled up behind the car—parking in the middle of the road—activated his rear-facing lights, shined a spotlight at the driver-side window, and quickly exited his vehicle.[3] Jaheim began to exit his vehicle whereupon the police officer said something (the recorded audio was too faint to accurately identify what was said) and Jaheim went back into his car.[4] The officer reached Jaheim’s car where he identified the smell of burnt marijuana and searched the defendant’s person and his vehicle.[5] The search uncovered the defendant’s possession of a bullet in his pocket and a stolen loaded handgun in the front-seat console.[6] The defendant was arrested and charged with firearms violations.[7]

This is a case about timing. Simply receiving a report of suspicious activity is not sufficient to generate probable cause—evidence of past, present, or future illegal activity must be known by the officer at the time of any search without the consent of the driver. Before the officer smelled burnt marijuana, Jaheim was not in violation of any laws (the Court admitted as much) and therefore, the officer lacked probable cause to search either Jaheim or his vehicle without his consent and Jaheim would be free to leave at any time.[8] However, Jaheim didn’t leave. So, when the officer continued his investigation and ultimately identified the smell of burnt marijuana, he was well within his rights to conduct a search to identify the presence of illegal narcotics.

The central question in this case is whether the officer had seized the defendant before smelling the marijuana. Secondarily, the Court sought to determine whether a defendant’s race or age can be used as a factor in the determination of whether a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would have reasonably believed that they were being seized and thus not free to leave. A person is “seized” when police use coercive measures leading a reasonable person to believe they were not free to leave.[9] Examples of coercive measures include: the presence of multiple officers on scene, the display of a weapon by an officer, physically touching an individual, the use of language or tone of voice indicating compliance might be compelled, and the use of sirens and flashing lights or other signals compelling an individual to pull over.[10] In this case, the Court unanimously held that not only was Cyrus not seized before the officer smelled marijuana, but that race and age could not be used in the reasonable person analysis.[11]

Before turning to the Court’s analysis of the issue, it is important to understand what the reasonable person standard is. The measure of reasonableness appears on its face to be a subjective metric. After all, Mr. Reasonable does not actually exist. What may be reasonable to you may not be reasonable to me. So, how do courts determine that an action is something that a reasonable person would do? Do judges put themselves in the defendant’s shoes and ask themselves what they would do (after all surely judges are reasonable people)? Do judges look to what an average person would do? Or do they use an individual’s characteristics (age, race, gender) to help frame what a reasonable person would do given a person’s likely experiences stemming from their characteristics?

In 1837, Vaughn v. Menlove established the reasonable person standard.[12] In the case, a farmer was warned by his neighbors that the way he was stacking his hay was a fire hazard. He ignored the warnings and his hay caught fire and damaged his neighbor’s cottages; the judge ruled that he was liable for the neighbor’s damages because he didn’t exercise the ordinary level of care necessary to prevent a fire which a reasonable person in his position would have done.[13] Although he was warned, it is unclear how much weight the judge afforded this fact. After all, the knowledge that hay could catch fire is what was important. Even absent a warning, the judge could have held that due to his occupation and residence, the defendant knew or should have known hay that hay could catch fire when it is stacked as it was in this case. Therefore, a reasonable person would not necessarily be what the average person would do in a given situation, but rather what a reasonable person given their knowledge and experiences would do.

As time passed and the reasonable person test became more refined, courts have consistently declared that the reasonable person test is an objective test.[14] This notion strains logic. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines objective as “expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations”.[15] Its definition for an objective test is: questions that are “limited to choices of fixed alternatives and reducing subjective factors to a minimum.”[16] Yet, the Court’s conclusion that Mr. Cyrus was not seized relies on several unfavorable interpretations. By requiring judges to consider the totality of the circumstances, the Court ensures that no reasonable person analysis can be objective. Each case is different, and each judge may use their discretion to determine which factor or factors they believe deserve more weight. This Court found that considering the totality of the circumstances: parking in the middle of the street, activating rear-facing lights, shining a spotlight on the driver, and the officers' self-admitted, uncharacteristically fast exit out of his vehicle did not constitute a seizure.[17] The Court could easily have reached a different conclusion for each factor based on how they chose to interpret persuasive authority. If the Court had come to a different conclusion on the necessary weight to be given to any one factor, the ultimate conclusion that Cyrus was seized would have changed. As a result, the reasonable person test by its very nature is a subjective test.

The dissent in the Supreme Court of California case, People v. Tacardon highlights this point best when they highlight a different interpretation of a spotlight's coercive effect.

The court apparently envisions that a reasonable person in Tacardon’s circumstances would think, “Oh, the officer who just eyeballed me, made a U-turn, pulled up behind me in his patrol car, pointed a bright spotlight at my car, got out of his car, and is now walking toward me isn’t trying to stop me. He just turned on his spotlight to see what’s going on. Good thing he didn’t turn on his emergency lights . . . looks like I’m free to leave.” This strains credulity.[18]

Although the facts in this case were a little different, the point is the same. It strains belief that this case could have only come to one rational conclusion. One could easily see how a reasonable person would believe that an officer parking in the middle of the road was intended to prevent them from leaving, that although a spotlight ensures an officer’s safety by giving them a clear line of sight, its secondary purpose is to let an individual know they are the subject of investigation, and that the officer’s quick approach and engagement in conversation (despite his friendly demeanor) indicated that he was being stopped. Further, although it is unknown what exactly was said during the course of the police interaction, several point remain undisputed. First, that Cyrus attempted to step out of the vehicle, that Cyrus testified that he asked the officer if he could get out of the vehicle, that the officer said something to him, and that Cyrus got back in his car.[19] It is unclear why the Court did not choose to use the rule of lenity to make the assumption that as a result of whatever the officer said to Mr. Cyrus, he believed he was not free to leave.[20] In my opinion, given these facts alone, if I had been Mr. Cyrus, I would not have felt I was free to leave. Reasonable people may disagree, but I believe I am a reasonable person.

Our thoughts and actions are a product of both nature and nurture (DNA, RNA, and experiences). Our experiences are shaped by our cultures, the places we’ve been, and the people we have interacted with. Although everyone is unique, not all of our experiences are. We all have shared experiences according to our characteristics. For example, all Americans have been affected by 9/11 in some way but not in the same way. Some Americans were either too young to remember 9/11 or they weren’t born yet. As a result, it would be reasonable for a young person to not have a strong reaction to an individual disrespecting the memory of 9/11, whereas it would be equally reasonable for an adult to have a strong one because each adult lived through and experienced it. Further, an individual’s race is highly important in determining what a reasonable person would feel or do. On mass, White Americans blamed Muslims (and brown people in general) for 9/11. Many Muslims were victims of both physical and emotional attacks.[21] Even though they had done nothing wrong, due to their religion and the color of their skin, their experience with 9/11 was vastly different. Not only did they experience the shock and most likely outrage along with their fellow Americans, but they also experienced a collective fear for their well-being.

To ensure that the subjective reasonable person test is as accurate as possible, I recommend incorporating as many relevant factors as possible into the totality of the circumstances equation. Specifically, there should be a modification to the reasonable person test that allows for: a defendant’s characteristics that would be readily apparent to any reasonable officer given their training, experience, and common sense in which the officer knew or should have known of these characteristics at the time of the police interaction to be used to determine whether a reasonable person would have believed they were free to leave.

This approach would not be unprecedented. Recently, the United States Supreme Court allowed judges to use a child’s age to determine whether a reasonable person would believe that they were free to leave and therefore whether a custodial interrogation had taken place in J.D.B. v. North Carolina.[22] It is illogical to hold that the fact that an eighteen-year-old’s age can be used as a factor, but a nineteen-year-old can’t. Humans’ prefrontal cortexes are not fully developed until they are approximately twenty-five years old.[23] Therefore, there is both a scientific and legal basis for allowing age to be used as a relevant factor.

An individual’s race is another facially apparent characteristic that could have a significant impact in determining what a reasonable person would do. Numerous studies have proven that police officers, both White and Black, have unconscious biases and perceive Black people as threats.[24] As the Court makes a point of mentioning twice, the stop in this case happened just months after George Floyd’s death.[25] Due to the efforts of the media, grassroots efforts, protests, and researchers, it can safely be assumed that the vast majority of Black Americans knows that they face a higher risk of being stopped by the police and of being killed by the police.

Further, not only do Black individuals face a higher risk of danger when confronted by police, but they also face a higher risk of being wrongfully convicted. The National Registry of Exonerations, run by The University of Michigan, recently released a report on the impact of race through the criminal justice system and how it creates significantly disparate impacts. Black Americans are SEVEN times more likely than innocent White Americans to be falsely convicted of serious crimes.[26] They make up 53% of exonerations despite the fact that only 13% of Americans are Black.[27] The report focused on murder, sexual assault, and drug exonerations because they produced the largest number of exonerations. For murder, it identified three possible explanations for why such a disproportionate number of exonerees were black: a high murder rate of Black-on-Black crime (93% of all Black victims), police misconduct, and discrimination.[28] It theorized that the main reason Black people are wrongfully convicted of sexual assault is due to mistaken cross-racial identification with white victims.[29] Lastly, the report cites discrimination—specifically racial profiling and police framing Black people—as the explanation for the disparate number of drug exonerations.[30] Due to the number of exonerations, it is plausible that large numbers of Black people also know that they face disproportionate wrongful convictions. This would undoubtedly create yet another reason to distrust and fear police interaction.

If someone approached you with a gun and you knew statistically you had a target on your back, would you risk leaving the scene when an officer was clearly investigating you? Would you fear being chased? If you decided to take the risk and the officer chased you, would you expect the officer to use force to apprehend you? Given that scenario, in which you believed you were not being seized, you attempted to leave the scene, and the police officer chased you and stopped you––who would you rather be? Man or woman, old or young, White or Black? There is only one objectively right answer: an old, white woman is the least likely for a police officer to perceive as a threat. By taking an individual’s relevant characteristics and notable experiences into account, courts can achieve their goal of truly making the reasonable person test an objective test. Our characteristics and experiences make us who we are; it is time for courts to stop pretending they don’t matter.


[1] State of Iowa v. Jaheim Romaine Cyrus, No. 21­–0828, 2 (Iowa 2023).

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 3.

[4] It should be noted that the opinion’s brief summary at the beginning of the opinion fails to include any mention that Jaheim attempted to exit the car. This could indicate which facts Justice Waterman found most important. Id; Iowa Courts, State of Iowa V Jaheim Cyrus, YouTube (Oct. 5, 2023), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otoP0yHfvwk [https://perma.cc/2L8R-WUND].

[5] Cyrus, No. 21­–0828 at 4.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 5.

[8] See id. at 3–4.

[9] See State v. Fogg, 936 N.W.2d 664, 668 (Iowa 2019) (quoting State v. Wilkes, 756 N.W.2d 838, 842 (Iowa 2008)).

[10] State v. Wilkes, 756 N.W.2d 838, 842–43 (Iowa 2008) (quoting United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 554 (1980)); State v. Harlan, 301 N.W.2d 717, 720 (Iowa 1981).

[11] See State of Iowa v. Jaheim Romaine Cyrus, No. 21­–0828, 2 (Iowa 2023) (holding race cannot be used in the reasonable person analysis).

[12] The notable difference between Vaughn and the present case is that Vaughn is a civil torts case and this one is a criminal case. As such, the relevant knowledge and experiences must be limited to those that are facially and readably apparent to a reasonable officer. See Vaughn v. Menlove, 132 Eng. Rep. 490 (C.P. 1837)

[13] Id.

[14] The opinion mentions objective ten times throughout the opinion.  See generally Cyrus, No. 21­–0828.

[15] Objective, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/objective [https://perma.cc/D6MM-U3AT].

[16] Id.

[17] State of Iowa v. Jaheim Romaine Cyrus, No. 21­–0828, 3 n.1 (Iowa 2023).

[18] The mere fact that there was a dissenting opinion proves the point that reasonable judges can come to different interpretations considering the totality of the circumstances. Id. at 10–11 (quoting People v. Tacardon, 521 P.3d 563, 571 (Cal. 2022).

[19] Cyrus, No. 21­–0828 at 5 (Iowa 2023).

[20] The rule of lenity covers ambiguities in the law where a tie goes to the most lenient legally permissible outcome. Although the ambiguity in this case is analogous, it is unclear whether judges can use the rule of lenity for matters not relating to law because the district court is ultimately the trier of fact.

[21] Liz Mineo, Born to Take on Islamaphobia, The Harv. Gazette, (Sept. 9, 2021) https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/09/muslim-americans-reflect-on-the-impact-of-9-11/ [https://perma.cc/L5Y3-CEKB].

[22] J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261, 263 (2011).

[23] Mariam Arain et al., Maturation of the Adolescent Brain, 9 Neuropsychiatric Disease & Treatment (2013). The prefrontal cortex is responsible for foreseeing and weighing consequences, balancing short-term rewards to long-term goals, impulse control, and delayed gratification, forming strategies and planning, focusing attention, considering the future and making predictions, organizing thoughts and problem solving, regulating emotions, and many more. Id.

[24] Jomills H. Braddock, II et. al., How Many Bad Apples? Investigating Implicit and Explicit Bias Among Police Officers and the General Public, Contexts, (Oct. 27, 2020), https://contexts.org/articles/how-many-bad-apples-investigating-implicit-and-explicit-bias-among-police-officers-and-the-general-public/ [https://perma.cc/ZW46-R4MU].

[25] State of Iowa v. Jaheim Romaine Cyrus, No. 21­–0828, 3, 14 (Iowa 2023).

[26] Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States, Nat'l Registry of Exonerations 1, 1 (Sept. 2022), https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Race%20Report%20Preview.pdf [https://perma.cc/TSD3-LQNB].

[27] Id.

[28] Id. at 2.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

Sunday, December 3, 2023