Category Archives: police

Driving With Wheels Off the Roadway

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In State v. Brooks, the WA Court of Appeals held that the neutral area separating a highway on-ramp from an adjacent lane of travel does not meet the definition of “roadway.” A driver who crosses this area is properly stopped for a violation of Driving with Wheels Off Roadway under RCW 46.61.670.

BACKGROUND FACTS

While merging onto westbound U.S. Route 97 from U.S. Route 2 in Chelan County, Jena Brooks’s car crossed over a portion of the highway designated as a “neutral area.” A neutral area is a paved triangular space separating an entrance or exit ramp from an adjacent lane of highway. The neutral area between Route 97 and its merger with westbound Route 2 is marked on each side by thick white channelizing lines. The drawing below is a depiction of a neutral area similar to the one crossed by Ms. Brooks:

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A Washington State Patrol trooper observed Ms. Brooks’s vehicular activity and performed a traffic stop. Ms. Brooks was ultimately arrested for driving on a suspended license and other misdemeanor offenses.

During proceedings in district court, Ms. Brooks filed a motion to suppress, arguing her vehicle had been stopped without probable cause. The motion was denied. Pertinent to this appeal, the district court ruled Ms. Brooks’s merger over the highway’s neutral area constituted “driving with wheels off roadway,” in violation of RCW 46.61.670. 2

Ms. Brooks was subsequently convicted of several misdemeanor offenses after a jury trial. Later, she successfully appealed the suppression ruling to the superior court. It found Washington’s definition of a roadway ambiguous in the context of a highway’s neutral area. The superior court then invoked the rule of lenity and determined Ms. Brooks should not have been stopped for driving with wheels off the roadway in violation of RCW 46.61.670.

ISSUES

The Court of Appeals addressed (1) whether the term roadway is ambiguous in the current context, and (2) if the term is ambiguous, whether the rule of lenity is an available tool of statutory construction that might benefit a defendant such as Ms. Brooks.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

“A highway’s neutral area is not a vehicle lane. It is too short to facilitate meaningful travel. And its triangular shape cannot consistently accommodate the size of a vehicle. Rather than being designed for vehicular travel, it is apparent the neutral area is designed as a buffer zone. It keeps vehicles separate so as to facilitate speed adjustment and, in the context of a highway on-ramp, safe vehicle merging.”

The Court further reasoned that National standards set by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD) confirmed its observations about the apparent design purpose of a highway’s neutral area. In short, the Court reasoned the MUTCD refers to the neutral area as an “island.” As such, it is an area intended for vehicle “separation.”

“Although a neutral area may be designated either by a wide or double solid white channelizing line, the two options carry no substantive significance” said the Court of Appeals. “Like a double white line, a solid white line can serve as an indicator that crossing is prohibited. The whole point of a neutral area is to exclude vehicles and promote orderly and efficient traffic flow,” said the Court of Appeals.

The Court concluded that Ms. Brooks failed to maintain her vehicle wheels on an area of the highway meeting the statutory definition of a roadway. A vehicle stop was therefore permitted under Washington’s wheels off roadway statute. Consequently, the superior court’s order on appeal from the district court is reversed.

Surprisingly, there’s quite a bit of caselaw on what constitutes “Driving With Wheels Off the Roadway.” Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges following after a police officer pullover where this citation led to arrest. It’s quite possible to suppress the fruits of a search based on unlawful stop, search and/or seizure.

Prosecutors Use Body Camera Evidence

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Interesting feature from  a correspondent for NPR who covers law enforcement and privacy issues. In this feature, he discusses how police body cameras are becoming key tools for prosecutors.

This year, police body cameras made the transition from experimental tech to standard equipment. Sales exploded after the 2014 Ferguson protests as police departments scrambled to refute claims of abuse. Now the cameras have become routine, but they’re not making a significant dent in the number of people shot and killed by police.

In this feauture from Weekend Edition Sunday, Kaste described how body cameras have become a standard piece of equipment for the criminal justice system.

“Prosecutors now use them far more often than – for police accountability, prosecutors are using it to make cases against defendants, against members of the public who are charged with crimes,” said Kaste. He also described how a survey last year conducted by George Mason University showed that prosecutors were far more likely to have used video to prosecute a member of the public than to use the video to prosecute a police officer.

“What we have really is technology that quickly became sort of required for prosecution in general,” said Mr. Kaste. “Juries now expect it, and the police in the field kind of feel the pressure to get video of themselves finding evidence.”

Kaste answered questions on whether citizens can use body camera video to support their own claims of police abuse.

“There’s no national standard on that, and that’s becoming more and more of a bone of contention,” he said. “In a lot of places, it’s considered a public record and you can request it. But a lot of cases, you don’t get to see the video because the case is under investigation, and that kind of puts it in limbo. Or, in places like California, Police departments have cited officer privacy. They kind of almost view it as a personnel record or something, and it takes a lot to get the video out,” said Mr. Kaste.

” . . . it’s gotten to the point where at least one academic I talked to this year said we should rethink the whole system and start giving the video to a third party to control, not to the police department.”

My opinion? Ultimately body-worn cameras (BWC’s) are a good thing. They provide non-objective evidence of what really happened instead of forcing us to rely on people’s stories. However, I agree with Mr. Kaste in his argument that obtaining the video is oftentimes difficult. It makes no sense that BWC evidence is released by the very same police departments that it’s made to scrutinize. This is the fox guarding the hen house. Consequently, attorneys must be incredibly careful, diligent and consistent on arguing public disclosure requests and motions to obtain pretrial discovery of this evidence.

Contact my office if you, a friend or family member faces criminal charges involving BWC evidence. Although it might work in a defendant’s favor, the evidence can be suppressed if it’s unfairly prejudicial against defendants under the rules of evidence.

 

I-940 & Police Misconduct

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Wonderful article by  of the Seattle Times  reports that Initiative 940 (I-940) gives an opportunity to prosecute police for deadly shootings in Washington state.

With Thursday’s expected delivery of signatures for Initiative 940, years of debate and stalemate over Washington’s deadly-force law look to be coming to a head. If I-940 qualifies, state lawmakers — and probably ultimately voters — will face big decisions on a charged issue.

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De-Escalate Washington

De-Escalate Washington didn’t just pull together the bare-bones 260,000 signatures for I-940, which would make it easier to prosecute law-enforcement officers for alleged misuse of deadly force. The group hopes to turn in about 360,000 signatures Thursday to the Washington Secretary of State’s office, according to Leslie Cushman, the group’s policy director.

In his article, O’Sullivan reports that community advocates have argued Washington’s law — considered the nation’s most restrictive for holding officers accountable for unjustified use of deadly force — is overdue for a change. Right now, an officer can’t be convicted of a crime for using deadly force if he or she acted in good faith and without malice, or what the law calls “evil intent.” That makes it nearly impossible for prosecutors to bring criminal charges even if they find an officer committed a wrongful killing, according to a 2015 report by The Seattle Times.

I-940 would change the law to a more detailed, multipart threshold that considers what a “reasonable officer” might have done under the circumstances. It would also take into account an officer’s intentions to determine if she or he acted in good faith.

The initiative also requires more de-escalation and mental-health training for law- enforcement officers.

O’Sullivan also writes that the effort comes on the heels of high-profile shootings including the deaths in Seattle of Che Taylor and Charleena Lyles by white officers of African Americans and other minorities in recent years have underscored concerns about law enforcement.

Family members of several victims of police shootings have been involved in the campaign, including Che’s brother Andrè, who chairs De-Escalate Washington.

Law Enforcement Response to I-940

O’Sullivan reports that law-enforcement groups have protested changes to the deadly-force statute. They say the new legal standard could prompt officers to hesitate in ways that could endanger themselves and others.

 “Unfortunately, this initiative will not do anything to reduce violent interactions between law enforcement and the public,” said Teresa Taylor, executive director for the Washington Council of Police & Sheriffs, which represents more than 4,300 law- enforcement officers.
However, success in the legislative session that begins in January appears unlikely. Lawmakers this year couldn’t find a compromise that satisfied both law enforcement and community activists.
My opinion? I-940 is a step in the right direction. And it’s about time. Police misconduct is a hot-button issue. Granted, being a police officer is a very difficult job. Officers make difficult judgment calls in very complex, risky and dangerous situations. That said, officers need training on diffusing situations which don’t necessarily rise to public safety and/or officer safety risks. I-940 is not made to put police in jail for doing their jobs. It’s made to foster public trust, train officers in de-esclating their contacts with citizens and avoid unnecessary shooting deaths.

Corpus Delicti & Drugs

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In State v. Hotchkiss, the WA Court of Appeals held that, despite the corpus delicti defense, the discovery of 8.1 grams of methamphetamine and $2,150 in cash during a search of the defendant’s home, provided sufficient corroborating evidence of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Law enforcement officers executed a search warrant on Hotchkiss’s residence in Vancouver. During the search, Hotchkiss admitted that he had an “8-ball” – approximately 3.8 grams – of methamphetamine in a safe and provided the officers with the code. He also stated that he procured about one 8-ball of methamphetamine every day and broke it down, and estimated that he had about 10 customers. Inside the safe, officers found 8.1 grams of methamphetamine and $2,150 in cash.

The State charged Hotchkiss with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver – methamphetamine. At a bench trial, officers testified about finding the methamphetamine and cash and about Hotchkiss’s statement that he had 10 methamphetamine customers. After the State rested, Hotchkiss requested that the trial court disregard the testimony regarding his incriminating statement under the corpus delicti rule because there was insufficient evidence corroborating his statement. The court reserved its ruling on the corpus delicti issue.

Hotchkiss then testified that he and a woman who lived with him used three or four grams of methamphetamine per day. He also testified that the cash in the safe came from other people living at his residence, who paid rent of $1,150 per month in cash, and from his employment. He claimed that any statement he made to the officers about selling methamphetamine referred to his actions 20 years earlier.

On rebuttal, an officer with extensive experience dealing with methamphetamine users
and sellers testified that a typical methamphetamine dose is 0.2 to 0.4 grams. He also testified that it would be very rare that someone would possess eight grams of methamphetamine solely for personal use.

The trial court found that the quantity of methamphetamine in Hotchkiss’s possession
combined with the amount of cash recovered with the drugs was sufficient corroborating
evidence to satisfy the corpus delicti rule. The court then found Hotchkiss guilty of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver. Hotchkiss appeals his conviction.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the corpus delicti rule prevents the State from establishing that a crime occurred solely based on the defendant’s incriminating statement. The State must present corroborating evidence independent of the incriminating statement that the charged crime occurred. Without such corroborating evidence, the defendant’s statement alone is insufficient to support a conviction.

The Court then addressed the question of whether there was enough independent evidence to support the conviction for possession of methampetamine with intent to deliver.

“The general rule is that mere possession of a controlled substance, including quantities greater than needed for personal use, is not sufficient to support an inference of intent to deliver,” said the Court. Here, the State presented evidence that (1) Hotchkiss had 8.1 grams of methamphetamine in his possession; (2) given an average dose size of 0.2 to 0.4 grams, such an amount typically would produce 20 to 40 doses; and (3) it would be very rare for a person to possess that amount merely for personal use.

The Court reasoned that under the general rule, this evidence standing alone would not be sufficient either to convict Hotchkiss of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver or to provide corroborating evidence under the corpus delicti rule.

“But the State presented evidence of an additional factor suggestive of intent to deliver –
$2,150 of cash in Hotchkiss’s safe next to the methamphetamine,” said the Court. “This methamphetamine and cash evidence would be sufficient to support a conviction for possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver.”

With that, the Court of Appeals concluded that the State satisfied the corpus delicti rule and affirmed Hotchkiss’ conviction of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver.

My opinion? Corpus Delicti is a tricky defense. It usually works best in cases where there is a gaping hole between the corroborating evidence and the defendant’s statements.

For example, let’s say that police received a 911 call about a red truck driving around in your neighborhood swerving in an out of traffic. The police respond to the call, drive to your neighborhood, and look a for a red truck. They find one parked at your home. They knock on your door. You open the door. You’re intoxicated from drinking alcohol.

“Were you driving?” asked the police.

“Yes,” you say. Police immediately arrest you for DUI.

Corpus delicti would be the appropriate defense in a case like this. Under our current DUI laws, the State must prove that not only were you driving that particular red truck, but that you were under the influence of alcohol when driving. In short, corpus delicti ensures that your statements and admission shall not be used against you in cases where there is a lack of independent evidence supporting your statements.

Please contact my office if you, a family member of friend face criminal charges with weak and/or questionable evidence supporting the charges. No matter what a person’s admissions are, we have the constitutional right to question the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the charges and perhaps argue the corpus delicti defense.

Poll: 6 In 10 Black Americans Say Police Unfairly Stopped Them Or A Relative

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News article by Joe Neel  of NPR says that a new poll out this week finds that 60 percent of black Americans say they or a family member have been stopped or treated unfairly by police because they are black. In addition, 45 percent say they or a family member have been treated unfairly by the courts because they are black. The poll is a collaboration between NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The poll reveals the consequences of these stops for black Americans personally and across society — 31 percent of poll respondents say that fear of discrimination has led them to avoid calling the police when in need. And 61 percent say that where they live, police are more likely to use unnecessary force on a person who is black than on a white person in the same situation.

Previous polls have asked similar questions, but ours is unique in that it’s the first to ask about lifetime experiences with policing. It’s part of NPR’s ongoing series “You, Me and Them: Experiencing Discrimination in America.”

Pew Research poll in 2016 asked whether people had been unfairly stopped by police because of race or ethnicity in the previous 12 months and found that 18 percent of black people said yes. A 2015 CBS News/New York Times poll asked whether this had ever happened and found 41 percent of black people said yes.

Neel reports that the NPR poll differs from Pew in that NPR asked not only about a much longer period but also whether people had been unfairly stopped or treated because of their race or ethnicity. Also the NPR poll differ from CBS in that NPR included the word “unfairly.” Finally, the NPR poll differs from both the Pew and CBS polls because NPR asked whether a person or a family member had had this experience, which gives a better sense of the presence of these experiences in respondents’ life and surroundings.

Neel also reports that the black American data from our poll, released Tuesday, were compiled from 802 black Americans as part of a large national representative probability survey of 3,453 adults from Jan. 26 to April 9. The margin of error for the full black American sample is plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.

It is imperative to contact a competent attorney if you, a friend or family member were pulled over, searched and/or seized by police under suspicious circumstances. Please contact my office for a free consultation.

Excessive Tasing

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In Jones v. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Dept., the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that any reasonable officer would have known that continuous, repeated, and simultaneous tasings could only be justified by an immediate or significant risk of serious injury or death to officers or the public. However, such force generally cannot be used on a prone suspect who exhibits no resistance, carries no weapon, is surrounded by sufficient officers to restrain him and is not suspected of a violent crime.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In the early morning of December 11, 2010, Officer Mark Hatten of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department pulled over Anthony Jones for a routine traffic stop. Hatten ordered Jones out of the car so he could pat him down for weapons. Jones obeyed at first but then started to turn toward Hatten. Scared of the much larger Jones, Hatten drew his firearm, pointed it at Jones and ordered him to turn back around. Instead, Jones sprinted away.

Hatten called for backup and pursued Jones. Hatten didn’t believe deadly force was necessary because Jones hadn’t threatened him and didn’t appear to have a weapon.

As he waited for other officers to arrive, Hatten used his taser to subdue Jones. Hatten fired his taser twice, causing Jones’s body to “lock up” and fall to the ground face down with his hands underneath him. Hatten proceeded to kneel on Jones’s back in an attempt to handcuff Jones, keeping his taser pressed to Jones’s thigh and repeatedly pulling the trigger.

Hatten continued to tase Jones even after backup arrived. Backup consisted of four officers: Richard Fonbuena on Hatten’s right side, who helped handcuff Jones; Steven Skenandore, who controlled Jones’s legs and feet; Timothy English at Jones’s head, who applied a taser to Jones’s upper back; and Michael Johnson, who arrived last and ordered the tasing to stop. Johnson wanted his officers to “back off on the tasers so that Jones’s muscles would relax.” According to Johnson, Jones “didn’t look like he was physically resisting” and there were “enough officers” to take Jones into custody.

In all, Jones was subjected to taser shocks for over ninety seconds: Hatten tased Jones essentially nonstop that whole time—with some applications lasting as long as nineteen seconds—and, for ten of those seconds, English simultaneously applied his taser.

Once the officers stopped tasing Jones, his body went limp. They sat him up but Jones was nonresponsive and twitching; his eyes were glazed over and rolled back into his head. The officers tried and failed to resuscitate him. Jones was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. The coroner’s report concluded that “police restraining procedures”—including the tasings—contributed to Jones’s death.

Jones’s parents sued the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and all of the officers involved in restraining Jones. They alleged Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations as well as various state law torts. However, the lower district court granted summary judgment for the defendants on all claims. The plaintiff’s appealed.

LEGAL ISSUE

Whether police officers are entitled to qualified immunity when they’re alleged to have caused the death of a suspect by using tasers repeatedly and simultaneously for an extended period.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

As a preliminary matter, the Court of Appeals held that under Fed. R. Civ. P. 17, the lower district court abused its discretion by failing to give plaintiffs a reasonable opportunity to substitute the proper party and thus cure the defective complaint.

Next, the Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether the officers were reasonable in the degree of force they deployed. They held that the officers’ repeated and simultaneous use of tasers for over ninety seconds was unreasonable and that a jury could reasonably conclude that the officers knew or should have known that these actions created a substantial risk of serious injury or death:

” . . . any reasonable officer would have known that continuous, repeated, and simultaneous tasings could only be justified by an immediate or significant risk of serious injury or death to officers or the public.”

The Court also reasoned that that such force generally cannot be used on a prone suspect who exhibits no resistance, carries no weapon, is surrounded by sufficient officers to restrain him and is not suspected of a violent crime. Furthermore, it reasoned that given that there was clearly established Fourth Amendment law and a jury could reasonably conclude that the officers used excessive force, the question of qualified immunity must proceed to trial.

Furthermore, the Court held that the plaintiff’s state law battery and negligence claims were triable, and should not have been dismissed by the lower district court. It said that while there was no evidence that any of the officers acted out of hostility or improper motive, there was a factual dispute as to whether the repeated and simultaneous tasings were so excessive under the circumstances that they amounted to willful or deliberate disregard of Jones’s rights. The Court of Appeals therefore remanded plaintiffs’ battery and negligence claims.

In a twist, however, The Court of Appeals affirmed the lower district court’s dismissal of the
Fourteenth Amendment claim. It said that even assuming all the facts Plaintiffs alleged, there was no evidence that the officers acted with a purpose of harming Jones that was unconnected to a legitimate law enforcement objective.

In another twist, the Court of Appeals held that the Plaintiffs’ false arrest and false imprisonment claims failed because there was no evidence that the decision to arrest Jones lacked justification, let alone that it was made in bad faith. The Court of Appeals therefore affirmed the dismissal of that claim.

My opinion? A well-reasoned, good decision. Although the Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of some of the Plaintiffs’ claims due to lack of evidence, the Court was ultimately convinced that the officers’ repeated and simultaneous use of tasers for over ninety seconds was unreasonable. Good decision.

Should Police Always Be Allowed to Shoot?

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Great article from Lawyer Monthly on the issue of whether police should be allowed to use deadly and lethal force under various circumstances.

It wrote that according to civil rights attorney Rodney Diggs with Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt, “The LAPD faces a need for systemic change”. In May 2017, the LA police commission unanimously approved 25 new recommendations, after discovering alarming findings in the LAPD’s first ever, Use of Force Report.

Diggs, who has handled multiple wrongful death lawsuits stemming from officer-involved shootings and individuals with mental disabilities, believes these recommendations are a step in the right direction.

 

“Over the years I have practiced, I have seen [approximately] 50-60% increase in wrongful death cases related to individuals suffering from mental disabilities/illness.”

According to the article, Lawyer Monthly surmised that such a vast increase of wrongful deaths is cause for huge concern. Therefore, what accounts towards this increase?

“The changes are due to the officer’s lack of being trained and dealing with individuals who suffer from mental illnesses,” says Diggs. “Conventional police training directly clashes with effective tactics for resolving a typical mental health crisis. Unfortunately, much of that training relies on a command-and-control approach that can lead to dangerous escalations in the use of force.”

HANDLING CITIZENS WITH MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES

“It’s more of a lack of training,” said Diggs. “Proper training takes time and money and the reason to why departments may not choose to use resources needed to train officers, is because the value may be hard to quantify. Once departments realize that it may cost money upfront for training but ultimately will save money and lives, they will see the return on investment.”

Training ought to enhance the public’s trust and to lessen the cases we are seeing involving mishandling alleged perpetrators. Rodney says: “Training will teach officers that they do not have to approach a situation and take action right away.  But in a medical emergency, slowing it down, getting additional resources and perhaps even stepping back should be the norm.

“When the public sees that someone’s life is saved because an officer properly assessed a situation and now that family doesn’t have to lose a loved one, then the public will trust that the police are equipped to handle these situations.”

MEDIA

“Additionally, the media plays a big role in the perception of its viewers,” said Diggs. He elaborated that the media can either assist in enhancing the public’s trust or incite fear. “So if we want to bridge the gap between officers and civilians, the media needs to highlight instances in which officers do the right thing in a very sticky situation.”

USE OF WEAPONRY

“Use of force is never acceptable unless the force used is objectively reasonable and used only when necessary to accomplish lawful objectives,” said Diggs. “Officers have to assess the situation and determine which use of force should be used in their specific situation.”

USE OF FORCE AND WEAPONRY

In the article, Rodney outlines the factors officers should use when deciding whether to use force and what type of force option to use:

(1) Whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the officer or others;

(2) The severity of the crime;

(3) Whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest; and

(4) Whether the suspect is a flight risk or attempting to escape custody.

Further, deadly force should only be used if there is an immediate threat of death or severe bodily injury to the officer or another.

However, implementing an effective process will not be easy. The article states that one possible method of improving often involves implementing better and stronger sanctions; so, we wonder whether those involved in wrongful deaths need to be better sanctioned.

STRONGER SANCTIONS

“A lot of times we see that criminally, officers are not charged with murder or even disciplined within their own departments,” said Diggs. “Despite the monetary compensation that may be awarded to families, the officers face no discipline and the money that is being paid is not being paid out of the officer’s pockets.  Monetary compensation by way of settlement, or event civil verdicts, does not equate police reform.

“Greater sanctions would cause a deterrent and would cause officers to think twice and consider the reasonable and appropriate force options available to them or opt not to use force, especially deadly force, when it’s not needed,” says Diggs.

The OIG Report of National Best Practices report itself discusses the following options:

  • Increased de-escalation training, and adopting de-escalation as a formal agency policy.
  • Discouraging force against those who pose a danger only to themselves.
  • Other options, such as chemical spray and personal protection shields.
  • Providing prompt supervisory response to critical incidents to reduce the likelihood of unnecessary force.

You can read the full proposed report here.

My opinion? Great article with excellent suggestions from Mr. Diggs.

Downtown Bellingham’s Loitering Problem: What’s the Answer?

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Excellent article by Kie Relyea of the Bellingham Herald discusses the problem of increased loitering in downtown Bellingham.

According to Relyea, downtown business owners are telling city leaders they need help. They’re tired of people sleeping in the doorways of their buildings, lighting fires in their alcoves, and having to clean up after those who leave behind stolen bicycles, trash, feces and drug paraphernalia such as used needles.

That, and a rise in antisocial behavior and unseemly loitering, is making some people who visit and work in downtown Bellingham feel unsafe.

Relyea reports that Bellingham residents reported feeling less safe when walking alone downtown during the day and night than previously, according to a recent survey of residents’ views about issues facing the community. The March 12 deadly shooting in downtown also raised a great deal of concern about safety downtown.

THE STATISTICS

According to Relyea, Bellingham Police Department statistics showed a nearly 2.5 percent increase in overall incidents from 2013 and 2016 in downtown – going from 3,688 to 3,778 responses that were both criminal and non-criminal in nature. For 2016 alone, 53 percent of the incidents police responded to in the downtown were non-criminal in nature.

Criminal incidents would be arrestable offenses such as assaults, robbery and rape. Non-criminal could include responding to people with mental problems, someone violating the sitting and lying ordinance, or someone who was drunk.

 

SOLUTIONS

Relyea reports that business owners want to help those who want to be helped. This means opening a bigger shelter for the homeless, getting them into housing, finding them jobs and helping people struggling with mental health and addiction.

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said prevention was important to her, and the city spends up to $450,000 a year toward such efforts, including for the Homeless Outreach Team, community paramedic and intensive case management.

An upcoming project called Whatcom GRACE (for Ground-Level Response and Coordinated Engagement) also could help, by reaching out to those being called “familiar faces” – people who tend to fall through the cracks over and over, and who have a number of needs such as housing, behavioral health and substance abuse. They’re also the ones who come into contact with a number of organizations.

Apparently, police believe it’s a safety issue to not have people blocking sidewalks where there are pedestrians. However, the ACLU and homeless advocates said such laws target people who are visibly poor and homeless, and could be unconstitutional.

Bellingham Council member Michael Lilliquist gave his perspective:

“For some people, including myself, restricting and limiting people from sitting down is not a well-aimed tool. For one thing, sitting down is sometimes a perfectly fine and normal thing to do. In addition, our police tell me it is difficult to enforce and easy to avoid,” he said.

“For example, people can move just a little distance, such as where the alleyway or a driveway cuts through, and then they are technically not in violation because it is not a ‘sidewalk’ under the definition,” Lilliquist added. “It seems like a lot of work, and some hostility, to get at something that is not the heart of the problem.”

My opinion?

First, don’t criminalize homelessness. That’s not the answer, and only leads to violating people’s constitutional rights. Second, if anything, divert more resources to addressing mental health and substance abuse.

Drug-Sniffing Dogs

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In United States v. Gorman, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Fourth Amendment was violated when an officer unreasonably prolonged an initial traffic stop and radioed for a drug-sniffing dog after because he thought there were drugs in the car.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In January 2013, a police officer stopped Straughn Gorman on Interstate-80 outside Wells, Nevada for a minor traffic infraction. The officer thought Gorman might be carrying drug money. Acting on this concern, he unsuccessfully attempted to summon a drug-sniffing dog and then prolonged Gorman’s roadside detention, which lasted nearly half an hour, as he conducted a non-routine records check.

Unable to justify searching the vehicle, he questioned Gorman further and finally released him without a citation.

Undeterred, the officer then developed the bright idea of contacting the sheriff’s office in Elko, a city further along Gorman’s route, to request that one of their officers stop Gorman a second time. The first officer conveyed his suspicions that Gorman was carrying drug money, described Gorman’s vehicle and direction of travel, and reported that his traffic stop had provided no basis for a search. “You’re going to need a dog,” he said. A second officer, who had a dog with him, then made a special trip to the highway to intercept Gorman’s vehicle.

The second officer saw Gorman and eventually believed he had found a traffic reason to pull him over. Following the second stop, the second officer performed a series of redundant record checks and conducted a dog sniff. The dog signaled the odor of drugs or drug-tainted currency. On the basis of the dog’s alert, the second officer obtained a search warrant, searched the vehicle, and found $167,070 in cash in various interior compartments.

No criminal charges arising from this incident were ever brought against Gorman. Instead, the government attempted to appropriate the seized money through civil forfeiture. Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement officials to “seize . . . property without any predeprivation judicial process and to obtain forfeiture of the property even when the owner is personally innocent.” Leonard v. Texas, 137 S. Ct. 847, 847 (2017).

Gorman contested the forfeiture by arguing that the coordinated stops violated the Fourth Amendment. He prevailed. The federal district court ordered that his money be returned and also awarded him attorneys’ fees. The Government appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals (1) affirmed the lower court’s order granting claimant’s motion to suppress evidence seized pursuant to a traffic stop; (2) affirmed the award of attorneys’ fees; and (3) held that the search of claimant’s vehicle following coordinated traffic stops violated the Constitution.

The Court of Appeals held that the first stop of claimant’s vehicle was unreasonably prolonged in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The court reasoned that the Supreme Court has made clear that traffic stops can last only as long as is reasonably necessary to carry out the “mission” of the stop, unless police have an independent reason to detain the motorist longer. The “mission” of a stop includes “determining whether to issue a traffic ticket” and “checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance.” Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609, 1615 (2015).

Additionally, the Court held that the dog sniff and search of claimant’s vehicle during the coordinated second vehicle stop followed directly in an unbroken causal chain of events from that constitutional violation; and consequently, the seized currency from the second stop was the “fruit of the poisonous tree” and was properly suppressed under the exclusionary rule.

Finally, the Court held that none of the exceptions to the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine – the “independent source” exception, the “inevitable discovery” exception, and the “attenuated basis” exception – applied to claimant’s case.

Good decision.

Ninth Circuit Strikes Nevada Statutory Scheme Allowing Pretextual Stops

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In United States v. Orozco, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a statute allowing Nevada law enforcement officers to stop and search commercial vehicles for no reason violates the Fourth Amendment as unlawfully pretextual.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2013, law enforcement received a tip that defendant Victor Orozco – a commercial truck driver – regularly transported illegal drugs across the border inside his semi truck. Unbeknownst to Orozco, Nevada had a statutory and administrative scheme  allowing its police officers to pull over and search commercial vehicles for contraband under the notion that these searched perform a public safety purpose.

On April 27, 2013, the tipster said Orozco would be driving through White Pine County,
Nevada. Trooper Zehr of the Nevada Highway Patrol was advised of the vehicle and its location. He was told he would have to develop his own probable cause to get the vehicle stopped because there could possibly be drugs in the vehicle, but there was nothing solid.

Troopers targeted Orozco’s truck and pulled it over. They discovered the truck had made several trips across the border. Eventually, a K-9 officer dog arrived and made a positive alert as to the presence of drugs. The troopers found a duffel bag containing twenty-six pounds of methamphetamine and six pounds of heroin in the sleeper compartment.

Prior to trial, Orozco moved to suppress the drug evidence on the ground that the inspection of his vehicle was an impermissible pretext “motivated by a desire to search for evidence of drug trafficking, rather than to conduct a commercial vehicle inspection.” However, because “safety inspections” were part of a facially valid administrative scheme, the district judge held that the stop of Orozco’s truck was lawful. Later, Orozco was convicted of two counts of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance for which he was sentenced to 192 months in prison.

LEGAL ISSUE ON APPEAL

Orozco appealed his conviction on the issue of whether the stop was justified under the administrative search doctrine, which permits stops and searches, initiated in furtherance of a valid administrative scheme, to be conducted in the absence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

In short, the Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s denial of Orozco’s motion to suppress, vacated his conviction for two counts of drug possession arising from the stop of his vehicle and remanded the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.

“Nevada Highway Patrol troopers made the stop in order to investigate criminal activity, even though they lacked the quantum of evidence necessary to justify the stop,” reasoned the Court of Appeals. Based on that, the stop was not justified under the administrative search doctrine, which permits stops and searches, initiated in furtherance of a valid administrative scheme, to be conducted in the absence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

The Court of Appels further reasoned that although an administrative scheme allowing Nevada law enforcement officers to make stops of commercial vehicles and conduct limited inspections without reasonable suspicion was valid on its face because its purpose was to ensure the safe operation of commercial vehicles, the evidence in this case, however, established beyond doubt that the stop of the defendant’s vehicle was a pretext for a stop to investigate information of suspected criminal activity short of that necessary to give rise to reasonable suspicion.

“The stop would not have been made in the absence of a tip that the defendant was possibly carrying narcotics. Accordingly, the stop was a pretextual stop that violated the Fourth Amendment.”

The Court further emphasized that the presence of a criminal investigatory motive, by itself, does not render an administrative stop pretextual, and nor does a dual motive—one valid and one impermissible. “Rather, the defendant must show that the stop would not have occurred in the absence of an impermissible reason.”

With that, the Court reversed Orozco’s convictions.

My opinion? Good decision. Pretextual stops are often used by police officers as an excuse to initiate a stop and search of automobiles suspected of being involved in criminal activity. These stops involve police officers stopping drivers for traffic violations – minor or otherwise – to conduct investigations which are separate and unrelated to the original reasons substantiating the stop. Pretextual traffic stops give police officer a lot of discretion in who they choose to stop and for what reasons. Too much discretion. Again, good decision.