Category Archives: Reasonable Suspicion

“Am I Free To Leave?”

Image result for police cars surround vehicle

In State v. Johnson, the WA Court of Appeals held that a “seizure” of a person occurs when an officer’s words and action would have conveyed to an innocent person that his or movements are being restricted. Officers need not create a complete obstruction of an individual’s movements in order for the encounter to become a seizure.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Officer Yates and Officer George of the Lynnwood Police Department were engaged in a proactive patrol late at night in an area known to have a high rate of criminal activity. The officers observed a silver vehicle enter a motel parking lot and park in a stall. After the vehicle came to rest, about a minute and a half passed without any person entering or leaving the vehicle. The officers became suspicious that its occupants were using drugs.

The officers, both of whom were armed and in uniform, approached the vehicle on foot and stood on opposite sides adjacent to the driver’s and passenger’s doors. They shined flashlights into the vehicle’s interior to enable them to see the vehicle’s occupants and ensure that neither was holding anything that could put the officers in danger. Because the vehicle was also flanked on both sides by cars parked in adjoining stalls, the officers had minimal space to move.

Officer Yates did not see any drugs or drug paraphernalia when he shined his flashlight inside the passenger compartment. Inside were the defendant Mr. Johnson and a female passenger.

Officer Yates stood on the passenger side while Officer George stood adjacent to the driver’s door. Yates sought to start a conversation with Johnson, who was in the driver’s seat, and did so by asking, “Hey, is this Taylor’s vehicle?” In fact, there was no “Taylor”; the ruse was intended to make Johnson feel more comfortable, in the hope that he would talk with the officer. Johnson appeared confused by the question, and Yates asked, again, whether the vehicle was “Taylor Smith’s vehicle.” In response, Johnson stated that the vehicle was his own and that he had recently purchased it.

Meanwhile, Officer George, who was leaning over the driver’s side door, noticed a handgun placed between the driver’s seat and the door.

George alerted Yates to the presence of the firearm, drew his own handgun, opened the driver’s door and removed the weapon from Johnson’s vehicle. Subsequently, Johnson was removed from the vehicle. Meanwhile, police dispatch informed the officers that Johnson’s driver’s license was suspended in the third degree, and that he had an outstanding arrest warrant and a felony conviction. The officers then informed Johnson that he was being detained but not placed under arrest and advised him of his Miranda rights.

Eventually, Johnson was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm in
the first degree.

Before trial, Johnson moved to suppress the evidence of the gun found in his possession, contending that it was found attendant to his unlawful seizure. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court granted Johnson’s motion. However, the judge did not make a determination as to whether Johnson was seized prior to the discovery and removal of the firearm, instead ruling that the encounter was a “social contact” and that “law enforcement had an insufficient basis to initiate a social contact.” The trial court further acknowledged that granting the motion to suppress essentially terminated the State’s case. The State appeals from the order granting Johnson’s motion.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

“In a constitutional sense, the term “social contact” is meaningless. The term has been adopted by lawyers and judges to describe circumstances that do
not amount to a seizure.”

The Court of Appeals further reasoned that term has been adopted by lawyers and judges to describe circumstances that do not amount to a seizure. It explained, for example, that a social contact is said to rest someplace between an officer’s saying ‘hello’ to a stranger on the street and, at the other end of the spectrum, an investigative detention (i.e., Terry stop).

“Fortunately, seizure jurisprudence is well-developed,” said the Court. It said the WA Constitution does not forbid social contacts between police and citizens. A police officer’s conduct in engaging a defendant in conversation in a public place and asking for
identification does not, alone, raise the encounter to an investigative detention. Not
every encounter between a police officer and a citizen is an intrusion requiring an
objective justification. Thus, the police are permitted to engage persons in conversation and ask for identification even in the absence of an articulable suspicion of wrongdoing.

“However, officers need not create a complete obstruction of an individual’s movements in order for the encounter to become a seizure. The test is whether a reasonable person faced with similar circumstances would feel free to leave or otherwise terminate the encounter.”

The Court of Appeals held the search and seizure unlawful. In the instant case, the defendant was seized when officers asked for proof of his identity under a totality of the circumstances analysis as (1) the defendant was seated in a parked car that was flanked by cars parked in each of the adjoining spaces when the two uniformed officers stood adjacent to the vehicle’s doors, such that neither the defendant nor his passenger would have been able to open the doors and walk away from the vehicle without the officers moving or giving way; (2) the defendant could not move his vehicle in reverse without risking his car making contact with one or both of the officers and a barrier prevented the vehicle from pulling forward, (3) the officers illuminated the interior of the vehicle with flashlights, and (4) the officers used a ruse to begin the contact, asking “Is this Taylor’s car?” (5) when the officers approached the vehicle and initiated a conversation with Johnson, they saw him seated with a female passenger and neither officer observed any signs of drug use, (6) Johnson was cooperative with Officer Yates and answered his questions, and (7) beyond the aforementioned hunch, the officers were aware of nothing that constituted a reasonable, articulable suspicion of potential criminal activity.

With that, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not err in granting
Johnson’s motion to suppress evidence of the subsequently discovered firearm.

My opinion? Good decision. Please contact my office if you a friend or family member are arrested for a crime and believe an unlawful search or seizure happened. Hiring an experienced defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.

Car Stop & Purse Search

Image result for vehicle search purse

In State v. Lee, the WA Court of Appeals held that a passenger’s consent to a search of her purse was not spoiled by police conduct during the traffic stop.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Defendant Ms. Lee was the front seat passenger in a car driven by Mr. Peterman. Detective Tilleson initiated a traffic stop for two traffic infractions. Detective Tilleson asked Peterman for his identification, learned his license was suspended, and arrested him for first degree driving while license suspended or revoked. Peterman consented to a search of the car.

Detective Tilleson told Ms. Lee to step out to facilitate his search of the car. She left her purse inside the car. Detective Tilleson ran Lee’s identification information to determine if she had a driver’s license so she could drive the car if it was not impounded. He learned Lee had a valid driver’s license and a conviction for possession of a controlled substance.

Lee began to pace back and forth near the car. At some point, Detective Fryberg directed Lee to sit on a nearby curb. During a conversation, Lee told Detective Tilleson the purse in the car was hers. Detective Tilleson asked Lee for permission to search her purse, telling her that he was asking “due to her prior drug conviction.” He also gave Lee warnings pursuant to State v. Ferrier that she was not obligated to consent and that she could revoke consent or limit the scope of the search at any time.

Lee consented to the search. When Detective Tilleson asked Lee if there was anything in her purse he should be concerned about, she said there was some heroin inside. Detectives found heroin and methamphetamine in her purse, advised Lee of her Miranda rights, and arrested her for possession of a controlled substance with intent to manufacture or deliver.

Before trial, Lee moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the search of her purse. The trial court denied Lee’s motion to suppress the results of the search of her purse. The court found “the testimony of the detectives involved was more credible than the defendant’s testimony. The trial court also determined that all of Lee’s statements were voluntary and that none were coerced. Finally, the court concluded that Lee validly consented to a search of her purse.

At the bench trial, the judge found Lee guilty as charged. Lee appealed on arguments that she did not validly consent to the search of her purse because the detectives unlawfully seized her.

LEGAL ISSUE

Whether police exceeded the reasonable scope and duration of the traffic stop by asking Ms. Lee’s consent to search her purse while mentioning her prior drug conviction.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals stated that both the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and article 1, section 7 of the Washington Constitution prohibit a warrantless search or seizure unless an exception applies. Voluntary consent is an exception to the warrant requirement.

“But an otherwise voluntary consent may be vitiated by an unlawful seizure,” reasoned the court of Appeals. “When analyzing a passenger’s consent to search the purse she left in
the car, we start with the traffic stop that led to the search.”

Here, the Court said the Fourth Amendment and WA Constitution both recognize an
investigative stop exception to the warrant requirement as set forth in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio. “The rationale of Terry applies by analogy to traffic stops applies by analogy to traffic stops,” said the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals explained that the proper scope of a Terry stop depends on the purpose of the stop, the amount of physical intrusion upon the suspect’s liberty, and the length of time the suspect is detained. A lawful Terry stop is limited in scope and duration to fulfilling the investigative purpose of the stop. “Once that purpose is fulfilled, the stop must end,” reasoned the Court.

Ultimately, the Court found that once the arrested driver consented to a search of the vehicle, it was not unreasonable for the detective to ask the passenger – here, Ms. Lee – if she consented to a search of the purse she left in the car. The detectives legitimately checked Lee’s identification to determine whether she was a licensed driver and could drive the car from the scene following Peterson’s arrest. And the search of the purse occurred roughly 18 minutes after the traffic stop began.

“We conclude Lee’s voluntary consent to search her purse was not vitiated by police conduct at the traffic stop. Specifically, under the totality of the circumstances, the police did not exceed the reasonable scope and duration of the traffic stop.”

In addition, the Court reasoned that the mention of Lee’s prior drug conviction must also be considered as part of the totality of the circumstances. “Here, there was a single mention of the conviction in passing,” said the Court. “There was no physical intrusion upon Lee.”

With that, the Court of Appeals concluded that the police did not exceed the reasonable scope or duration of the traffic stop under the totality of the circumstances. Therefore, Lee failed to establish that her voluntary consent to search her purse was vitiated by police conduct. Her conviction was affirmed.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime involving a questionable search and seizure by the police. Hiring competent and experienced defense counsel is the first and best step toward justice.

Unlawful Vehicle Stops

Image result for unlawful vehicle stop and search

In United States v. Landeros, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that law enforcement officers may not extend a lawfully initiated vehicle stop because a passenger refuses to identify himself, absent reasonable suspicion that the individual has committed a criminal offense.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Early in the morning of February 9, 2016, police officer Baker pulled over a car driving 11 miles over the speed limit. The stop occurred on a road near the Pascua Yaqui Indian Reservation. Defendant Alfredo Landeros sat in the front passenger seat next to the driver. Two young women were in the back seat. The driver apologized to Officer Baker for speeding and provided identification.

Officer Baker wrote in his incident report and testified that he smelled alcohol in the car. The two women in the backseat appeared to him to be minors, and therefore subject to the underage drinking laws.  The two women—who were 21 and 19 years old—complied.

Officer Baker did not believe that Landeros was underage, and he was not. Nonetheless, Officer Baker commanded Landeros to provide identification.

Landeros refused to identify himself, and informed Officer Baker that he was not required to do so. Officer Baker then repeated his demand to see Landeros’s ID.” Landeros again refused. As a result, Officer Baker called for back-up, prolonging the stop. Officer Romero then arrived, and he too asked for Landeros’s identification. The two officers also repeatedly commanded Landeros to exit the car because he was not being compliant.

Landeros eventually did leave the car. At least several minutes passed between Officer Baker’s initial request for Landeros’s identification and his exit from the car. As Landeros exited the car, he saw for the first time pocketknives, a machete, and two open beer bottles on the floorboards by the front passenger seat. Under Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 4-251, Arizona prohibits open containers of alcohol in cars on public highways. Officer Baker then placed Landeros under arrest.

Landeros was arrested both for possessing an open container and for “failure to provide his true full name and refusal to comply with directions of police officers under Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 13-2412(A). Under that statute, it is unlawful for a person, after being advised that the person’s refusal to answer is unlawful, to fail or refuse to state the person’s true full name on request of a peace officer who has lawfully detained the person based on reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime.”

The officers handcuffed Landeros as soon as he exited the car. Officer Romero asked Landeros if he had any weapons. Landeros confirmed that he had a knife in a pocket. Officer Romero requested consent to search Landeros’s pockets, and Landeros agreed. During that search, Officer Romero found a smoking pipe and six bullets in Landeros’s pockets.

Landeros was federally indicted for possession of ammunition by a convicted felon, 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1), 924(a)(2). He moved to suppress the evidence based on the circumstances of the stop, however, the lower federal district court denied the motion. Landeros then entered into a plea agreement that preserved his right to appeal the denials of the two motions. The district court accepted the agreement and sentenced Landeros to 405 days in prison and three years of supervised release. He appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Ninth Circuit held that law enforcement officers may not extend a lawfully initiated vehicle stop because a passenger refuses to identify himself, absent reasonable suspicion that the individual has committed a criminal offense.

The Court reasoned held that because the lower court mistakenly approved the duration of the stop in this case based on United States v. Turvin and wrongfully disregarded Rodriguez v. United States.

“Applying Rodriguez, we shall assume that Officer Baker was permitted to prolong the initially lawful stop to ask the two women for identification, because he had reasonable suspicion they were underage. But the several minutes of additional questioning to ascertain Landeros’s identity was permissible only if it was (1) part of the stop’s “mission” or (2) supported by independent reasonable suspicion.”

The Ninth Circuit also held that any extension of the traffic stop to investigate those matters was an unlawful seizure because there was no evidence that the officer had a reasonable suspicion that the defendant was out past his curfew or drinking underage. As a result, the record does not demonstrate that Officer Baker had a reasonable suspicion that Landeros was out past his curfew or drinking underage. Any extension of the traffic stop to investigate those matters was an unlawful seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit rejected the government’s arguments that the defendant’s refusal to identify himself provided reasonable suspicion of the additional offenses of failure to provide identification and failure to comply with law enforcement orders.

The Court reasoned that here, the officers insisted several times that Landeros identify himself after he initially refused, and detained him while making those demands. “At the time they did so, the officers had no reasonable suspicion that Landeros had committed an offense,” said the Ninth Circuit. “Accordingly, the police could not lawfully order him to identify himself. His repeated refusal to do so thus did not, as the government claims, constitute a failure to comply with an officer’s lawful order . . .” Consequently, reasoned the Ninth Circuit, there was therefore no justification for the extension of the detention to allow the officers to press Landeros further for his identity.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that there was therefore no justification for the extension of the detention to allow the officers to press the defendant further for his identity. It reasoned that the bullets the defendant was convicted of possessing cannot be introduced at trial because he was ordered from the car as part of the unlawfully extended seizure and subsequently consented to a search of his pockets. Furthermore, because the stop was no longer lawful by the time the officers ordered the defendant to leave the car, the validity (or not) of the police officer’s order to exit the vehicle did not matter.

Good opinion.

Celebrate the Fourth of July Responsibly

Image result for fourth of july drugs alcohol

When celebrating holidays, many people gather with friends and family, decorating their homes and enjoying time together. However, some holiday celebrations often include consuming substances like illegal drugs and alcohol.

In 2016, Americans spent more than $1 billion on cold beverages for their Fourth of July celebrations. That amount was higher than what was spent on burgers and hotdogs, combined. According to CNBC, the Fourth of July is the country’s largest beer-drinking holiday. The popular holiday also surpassed New Year’s as the most dangerous holiday of the year, especially when it comes to traveling on the roadways. According to the Los Angeles Times, there was an average of 127 fatal car crashes each year on July 4 between 2008 and 2012. Of those who died, 41 percent of people had elevated blood alcohol levels.

So how did the day that was meant to celebrate America’s birthday become a day where people choose to drink? The Fourth of July is a federal holiday, which means that most businesses are closed and the employees of those businesses get to enjoy the day off. Jeffrey Spring, a spokesman for the Automobile Club of Southern California, told the Los Angeles Times that it’s more than just celebrating a day off of work. “They tend to try to cram a lot into these weekends and that’s where they get into trouble,” Spring said. In other words, a paid holiday is taken to new heights due to the excitement of having a free day to themselves.

Some advice? Please remember that beneath all the celebration, the Fourth of July is more than just about alcoholic drinks and setting off fireworks. In 1776, the thirteen American colonies declared themselves independent from the British Empire, thus the United States of America was born. Also known as Independence Day, the day celebrates the birth of the country. It can be commemorated in speeches presented by politicians, celebrities hosting private events, or military personnel saluting the United States at noon on the holiday by shooting off a rifle.

The Fourth of July is important to celebrate for its historical significance. This holiday is a time to remind people not only of the hard work and dedication it took to become the country that the United States is today, but to encourage people to live their lives to their fullest potential.

Don’t let the Fourth of July become a catalyst for illegal behavior.

However, please call my office if you, a friend or family member consume intoxicants this Fourth of July and later find yourselves facing criminal charges. It’s imperative to hire responsive and experienced defense counsel when contacted by law enforcement.

“Furtive Movements”

Image result for furtive movements

In State v. Weyand, the WA Supreme Court held that officers lacked sufficient facts to justify a Terry stop of the defendant. Walking quickly while looking up and down the street at 2:40 a.m. is an innocuous act, which cannot justify intruding into people’s private affairs.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On December 22, 2012, at 2:40 in the morning, Corporal Bryce Henry saw a car parked near 95 Cullum Avenue in Richland, Washington, that had not been there 20 minutes prior. The area is known for extensive drug history. Corporal Henry did not recognize the car and ran the license plate through an I/LEADS (Intergraph Law Enforcement Automated System) database. However, that license plate search revealed nothing of consequence about the vehicle or its registered owner.

After parking his car, Corporal Henry saw Weyand and another male leave 95 Cullum. As the men walked quickly toward the car, they looked up and down the street. The driver looked around once more before getting into the car. Weyand got into the passenger seat. Based on these observations and Corporal Henry’s knowledge of the extensive drug history at 95 Cullum, he conducted a Terry stop of the car.

After stopping Weyand, Corporal Henry observed that Weyand’s eyes were red and glassy and his pupils were constricted. Corporal Henry is a drug recognition expert and believed that Weyand was under the influence of a narcotic. When Corporal Henry ran Weyand’ s name, he discovered an outstanding warrant and arrested Weyand. Corporal Henry searched Weyand incident to that arrest and found a capped syringe. Corporal Henry advised Weyand of his Miranda3 rights, and Weyand admitted that the substance in the syringe was heroin that he had bought from a resident inside 95 Cullum.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The State charged Weyand with one count of unlawful possession of a controlled substance. Weyand moved to suppress all evidence and statements under Criminal Rules (CrR) 3.5 and 3.6 and to dismiss the case against him. Weyand argued that the officer did not have sufficient individualized suspicion to conduct the investigatory stop.

After the hearing, the court concluded that the seizure was a lawful investigative stop. According to the court, Corporal Henry had reasonable suspicion to believe that Weyand was involved in criminal activity. The court found Weyand’s case distinct from State v. Doughty, because in this case there was actual evidence of drug activity at, as well as known drug users frequenting, 95 Cullum.

The court additionally found that Weyand knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his Miranda rights; thus, all post-Miranda statements were admissible at trial. Weyand waived his right to a jury trial and agreed to submit the case to a stipulated facts trial. Finding that Weyand possessed a loaded syringe that contained heroin, the court found Weyand guilty of unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

Weyand appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction. It reasoned that the totality of the circumstances, coupled with the officer’s training and experience, showed that the officer had a reasonable, articulable suspicion that justified the stop. Those circumstances included “the long history of drug activity at 95 Cullum, the time of night, the 20 minute stop at the house, the brisk walking, and the glances up and down the street.”

LEGAL ISSUE

Whether the specific facts that led to the Terry stop would lead an objective person to form a reasonable suspicion that Weyand was engaged in criminal activity.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court held that officers lacked sufficient facts to justify a Terry stop of the defendant. It reasoned that under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution, an officer generally may not seize a person without a warrant. There are, however, a few carefully drawn exceptions to the warrant requirement. The State bears the burden to show that a warrantless search or seizure falls into one of the narrowly drawn exceptions.

One of these exceptions is the Terry investigative stop. The Terry exception allows an officer to briefly detain a person for questioning, without a warrant, if the officer has reasonable suspicion that the person is or is about to be engaged in criminal activity. An officer may also briefly frisk the person if the officer has reasonable safety concerns to justify the protective frisk.

The Court found that the totality of the circumstances did not justify a warrantless seizure. It reasoned that in order to conduct a valid Terry stop, an officer must have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity based on specific and articulable facts known to the officer at the inception of the stop. To evaluate the reasonableness of the officer’s suspicion, Courts look at the totality of the circumstances known to the officer. The totality of circumstances includes the officer’s training and experience, the location of the stop, the conduct of the person detained, the purpose of the stop, and the amount of physical intrusion on the suspect’s liberty. The suspicion must be individualized to the person being stopped.

“Here, the trial court’s decision rested primarily on evidence that 95 Cullum was a
known drug location,” said the Court. “However, Corporal Henry did not observe current activity that would lead a reasonable observer to believe that criminal activity was taking place or about to take place in the residence.”

Furtive Movements

Also, the Court reasoned that reliance on ‘furtive movements’ as the basis for a Terry stop can be problematic. “Case law has not precisely defined such movements, and courts too often accept the label without questioning the breadth of the term.” It explained that ‘furtive movements’ are vague generalizations of what might be perceived as suspicious activity which does not provide a legal ( or factual) basis for a Terry stop.”

The Court quoted Judge Richard Posner in recognizing that “furtive movements,” standing alone, are a vague and unreliable indicator of criminality:

“Whether you stand still or move, drive above, below, or at the speed limit, you will be described by the police as acting suspiciously should they wish to stop or arrest you. Such subjective, promiscuous appeals to an ineffable intuition should not be credited.”

With that, the WA Supreme Court reasoned that simply labeling a suspect’s action a “furtive movement,” without explaining how it gives rise to a reasonable and articulable suspicion, is not sufficient to justify a Terry stop. Furthermore, reasoned the Court, police cannot justify a suspicion of criminal conduct based only on a person’s location in a high crime area:

“It is beyond dispute that many members of our society live, work, and spend their waking hours in high crime areas, a description that can be applied to parts of many of our cities. That does not automatically make those individuals proper subjects for criminal investigation.”

Consequently, the WA Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and hold that walking quickly and looking around, even after leaving a house with extensive drug history at 2:40 in the morning, is not enough to create a reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity justifying a Terry stop.

My opinion? Excellent decision. I’m very impressed the Court addressed the term “furtive movements” and put it in perspective. Law enforcement officers regularly use this catch-phrase to describe suspicious behavior allowing them stop/search/seize people. Although officer safety is a primary concern and a very good reason to search people who are already in police custody and making “furtive movements” in the presence of officers, it cannot be a basis for stopping and searching people who are simply going about their business walking down the street. Great decision.

Ninth Circuit Strikes Nevada Statutory Scheme Allowing Pretextual Stops

Image result for excuses for traffic stop

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.