Thursday, July 10, 2014

Analyzing the law rather than justifying an outcome

Francheska Jaganathan was motoring along Interstate 10 in Chambers County (just east of Houston) when she was stopped by a state trooper for allegedly ignoring a sign that indicated the left lane was for passing only. When the officer stopped Ms. Jaganathan he smelled the distinct odor of marijuana coming from her car. A search of the trunk revealed a few pounds of marijuana (somewhere between five and 50 based on indictment.

At trial Ms. Jaganathan argued that the search of her car was the result of an illegal arrest and that the evidence discovered should be suppressed. She argued that the officer had not followed her long enough to determine if she was violating the law. The state argued that at the point she was pulled over, Ms. Jaganathan had traveled in the left-hand lane for some 45 seconds and that she was clearly not passing anyone.

The trial court denied Ms. Jaganathan's motion to suppress and she entered a guilty plea. She then appealed.

The First Fourteenth Court of Appeals overturned the trial court's denial of her suppression motion and remanded the case back to the trial court in Jaganathan v. State, No. 14-13-00356-CR (Tex.App.--Houston [1st 14th] 2014) holding that the evidence presented at the trial court level failed to show the officer had reasonable suspicion to believe that Ms. Jaganathan was violating a  provision of the transportation code.

At some point Ms. Jaganathan passed a sign that said the left lane was for passing only. The stated purpose of that provision of the transportation code is to make the highways safer by keeping slower moving traffic out of the left lane. Between the time she passed the sign and the time she was stopped, Ms. Jaganathan passed one vehicle and was gaining ground on another car that had merged into the middle lane. At the same time the officer began pursuing Ms. Jaganathan at a high rate of speed. He testified at the suppression hearing that it would have been unsafe for her to have moved into the lane in front of him while he was in pursuit.

The appellate opinion points out that the officer had only been in active pursuit of Ms. Jaganathan for about 12 seconds and that she was not impeding traffic while driving in the left lane.

Affirming the conviction would have been an easy decision for most judges. The trial court judge, for instance, heard the testimony and denied the motion because she was driving in the left lane and, more importantly, because she had a whole lot of hippie lettuce in the trunk of her car. But Marc Brown, the author of the opinion, looked beyond the grass in the trunk. He made his analysis without regard to the fruits of the search. Instead of looking for a reason to affirm the decision he looked at the facts of the stop itself and the purpose of the law the officer accused Ms. Jaganathan of violating.

That's what a judge should do.


Anonymous said...

Harvey Brown is on the 1st. Marc Brown is on the 14th. was the case out of the 1st or the 14th?

Paul B. Kennedy said...

Thanks. This is what happens when I don't do a good job of proofing my post in the morning. I should have caught it because I had the correct case number in the cite.