Wednesday, February 17, 2010

When does a traffic stop become unreasonable?

At 1:40 a.m. on July 17, 2009, police in Southaven, Mississippi stopped a white Pontiac Grand Prix for driving with no license plate tag. After he pulled the car over, Sgt. Lance Sheppard realized the car had a license plate but the license plate light was not working.

After he approached the car from the passenger side he asked the driver, Josue Valle-Tellez, for his driver's license and insurance. He then asked Mr. Valle-Tellez to get out of the car. After informing Mr. Valle-Tellez that he had been stopped because his license plate lamp was out, Sgt. Sheppard frisked him for weapons. He then began questioning Mr. Valle-Tellez about his travel plans. He asked Mr. Valle-Tellez where he had come from, where he was going and who the passengers were. Officer Cunningham (who arrived after the initial stop) then watched Mr. Valle-Tellez while Sgt. Sheppard questioned the passengers.

After getting conflicting answers from everyone, Sgt. Sheppard asked Mr. Valle-Tellez if he could search the car. All this time the good officer held on tight to Mr. Valle-Tellez' driver's license and insurance card.

Lo and behold, forty-five minutes later, in the bumper of the car, Sgt. Sheppard found eight kilos of heroin hydrochloride. Mr. Velle-Tellez was arrested and charged with possession with intent to distribute.

But, wait just a minute. The Honorable Sharion Aycock, a federal district judge for the Northern District of Mississippi, ruled the stop was unreasonably extended and that the search was, therefore, illegal.

The court evaluated the initial traffic stop under the Terry v. Ohio analysis and determined that Sgt. Sheppard was justified in stopping Mr. Valle-Tellez' car. The court then looked to see if the detention was reasonable and lasted no longer than necessary in relation to the reason for the initial stop.

To make that determination the court looked to whether Sgt. Sheppard "pursued a means of investigation that was likely to confirm or dispel [his] suspicions quickly..." In making this analysis the court looked at how much time elapsed between the time Sgt. Sheppard asked for Mr. Valle-Tellez' license and when he "ran" the license. The court also looked to the timing of Sgt. Sheppard's request to search the car (he didn't check Mr. Valle-Tellez' license until after he had consented to the search). The court also looked at the "totality of the circumstances" surrounding the stop to determine whether Sgt. Sheppard had developed a reasonable suspicion based on articulable facts. Finally the court looked at the length of the overall stop (over 45 minutes).

Judge Aycock found that the length of the stop made the stop unreasonable as Sgt. Sheppard was unable to show a connection from contradictory answers from the driver and passengers and criminal activity.

The court then tackled the issue of Mr. Valle-Tellez' consent to the search. The court looked to a multi-factor test used by the Fifth Circuit in making its determination. The court focused in on the timing of Mr. Valle-Tellez' consent in relation to the illegal stop. The court was troubled that the police delayed the return of Mr. Valle-Tellez' driver's license and did not inform him that he was free to leave once his license came back "clean." The court then decided that Mr. Valle-Tellez' consent was "not an independent act of Valle-Tellez' free will."

The court granted Mr. Valle-Tellez' motion to suppress on the grounds that the stop was unreasonable and that the search was illegal.

This fact pattern is repeated ad nauseum in towns and cities across this country, but many defendants choose not to challenge the legality of the stop because they gave their "consent." Mr. Valle-Tellez chose to fight and was rewarded for that decision.

See also:

"N.D.Miss: 45 stop without RS unreasonable" (Jan. 16, 2010)


Marcus L. Schantz said...

I am not surprised. This is how it should be. Kudos to the judge that ruled on this.

Hope it holds on on appeal. Can't imagine the U.S. Attorney's office giving up.

Houston DWI Attorney Paul B. Kennedy, said...

Thanks for the comment. Way too often violations of the 4th Amendment are justified by the courts because the cops found something; I hope this case is yet another step away from the ledge.

We all have hunches. A hunch shouldn't be sufficient to deprive a man of his liberty.

rachel torres said...

Well I hope the State of Miss. agrees with the Federal Courts. Mr.Valle-Tellez is waiting for his freedom again in Southhaven Miss. jail for the same case. In all reality this young man needs all the prayers and help he can get.< In all reality He had just graduated from high school and was asked to go on vacation. Wow! what a vacation right. How a dream can turn to a nightmare. If anyone can help this young man PLEASE!!!

areli.1 said...

I agree with Honorable Paul B. Kennedy. "We all have hunches. A hunch shouldn't be sufficient to deprive a man of his liberty." This rulling are the results of untrained law enforcement. If Sgt. Lance Sheppard would have done his job correctly the rulling would have been different. But after the Honorable Sharion Aycock, a Federal Judge for the N.D of Mississippi, granted Mr. Valle-Tellez motion to suppress on the grounds that the stop was unreasonable and that the search was illegal. Not only suppresed it but also dimissed it. In the circuit court of Desoto County, the state of Mississppi re-indicted Mr. Valle-Tellez with possession of controlled substances. Now, Josue Valle-Tellez is currently in question of "His Freedom."