Tuesday, July 26, 2011

In Utah, no reasonable suspicion? No problem

In order to make a valid traffic stop in Texas, a law enforcement officer must either have probable cause to arrest or reasonable suspicion to believe criminal activity is afoot. As nebulous and logically bankrupt as reasonable suspicion is, the bottom line is an officer must point to a traffic violation, other illegal act or objective reasons to believe the motorist is breaking the law in order for the stop to be legal.

It is not enough that an officer had a good faith belief (whatever that is) that a motorist committed a traffic offense - if it wasn't a traffic offense, the stop - and all evidence gathered as a result of the stop - is no good.

In Utah, on the other hand, the state Supreme Court has thrown a lifeline to police officers who can't figure out whether a motorist has committed a traffic violation or not. In State v. Morris, 2011 UT 40 (No. 20090835) (Utah 2011), the court held that if an officer makes a stop and finds out he was in error he can approach the driver to let him know about the mistake -- and, if he develops new reasonable suspicion that criminal activity may be afoot, he may "respond accordingly."

A state trooper observed Mr. Vance Morris driving on a two-lane highway one night. Mr. Morris appeared to be "bumping" the fog line. The trooper, Travis Williams, turned on his video camera and began to follow Mr. Morris. When it appeared there was no license plate on the car, Trooper Williams initiated a traffic stop. As he approached the car he saw a temporary tag on the car.

Trooper Williams informed Mr. Morris that he was mistaken in pulling him over -- but then he smelled the (evil) odor of an alcoholic beverage on Mr. Morris' breath. And, as you can probably guess, Mr. Morris found himself in the backseat of Trooper Williams' patrol car charged with DWI and, here's the kicker, possession of a controlled substance (a search of the car turned up drugs and drug paraphernalia).

The trial court (and this should not be a surprise to anyone) denied Mr. Morris' motion to suppress on the grounds that even though the basis of the stop was questionable, it was perfectly reasonable for the officer to approach Mr. Morris and inform him of the mistake. The appeals court disagreed and ruled in Mr. Morris' favor on the grounds that there was no legal basis for the stop and that Trooper Williams no longer had reasonable suspicion once he spotted the valid temporary tag.

In its opinion, the court said:

Although we appreciate the court of appeals’ effort to vigilantly protect the constitutional rights of our citizens, we also conclude that the court of appeals misapplied the Fourth Amendment’s command that searches and seizures be reasonable.  As we discuss in more detail below, we first conclude that Trooper Williams’s stop was justified at its inception.  Next, we conclude that, in light of the factual circumstances that followed,Trooper Williams’s further detention of Mr. Morris was also a reasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

That's right. The appeals court apparently was confused about the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable search and seizures.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
The court then twisted logic even further with this:

Under the Fourth Amendment, a police officer may stop a vehicle only if the officer has a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the driver or a passenger is engaged in criminal activity. Although to be lawful, reasonable suspicion must be based on “‘specific and articulable facts and rational inferences,’” “[a] police officer need not actually observe a violation” to make a stop. “Instead, ‘as long as an officer suspects that the driver is violating any one of the multitude of applicable traffic . . . regulations, the police officer may legally stop the vehicle.’” The  fact  that  an  officer mistakenly relies on objective facts that upon closer review suggest that the stop would not be justified will not automatically render the subsequent search unconstitutional.  Indeed, “[a] factual belief that is mistaken, but held reasonably and in good faith, can provide reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop.”

So, there you go. If you should find yourself driving along the highways and byways of Utah, be careful because the police don't even have to have a valid reason to stop you. And don't count on that pesky little Fourth Amendment to save your ass because, at least in the Beehive State, it doesn't mean what it says.

(H/T FourthAmendment.com)

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