Friday, April 1, 2016
Ninth Circuit Says Traffic Stop Legal, Even Though Officer Lied About Reason
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A police officer’s false explanation as to why he stopped a vehicle will not render the stop unlawful if there was reasonable cause for it, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The panel affirmed Hector Magallon-Lopez’s conviction on charges of drug trafficking.
The defendant was arrested as part of the investigation into an interstate drug-trafficking ring. Officers working with a Drug Enforcement Administration task force learned through wiretaps that a shipment of methamphetamine would be traveling by car from the Yakima Valley in Washington State to Minnesota.
They also learned the color of the car; the fact that two Hispanic men would be inside; and the name of one of the men, Juan Sanchez, and the nickname of the other, along with the fact that the latter man had a certain tattoo on his arm.
They also were able to estimate the time the vehicle would come through Bozeman, Mont.
When police spotted the car on Sept. 28, 2012, an officer followed it. A check of the plates determined the car was registered to Magallon-Lopez, who lived in the Yakima Valley area. A Montana trooper stopped the car, telling Magallon-Lopez that he had failed to signal when making a lane change.
Officers questioned the men, confirmed their names and learned they were traveling from the Yakima Valley to Minnesota. A dog sniffed out drugs in the car, which was seized until authorities got a search warrant and found the drugs.
U.S. District Judge Susan Watters, denied Magallon-Lopez’s motion to suppress. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison, and only challenged the legality of the stop and subsequent search on appeal.
Judge Paul J. Watford, writing for the Ninth Circuit, said it was beyond dispute that the wiretaps provided reasonable suspicion that the vehicle was carrying contraband. Thus, the judge explained, the only theory on which the stop could be challenged was that the officer’s stated reason was neither true nor supported by reasonable suspicion.
The argument, however, is at odds with a line of cases, beginning with Whren v. United States (1996), holding that a stop supported by probable cause or reasonable suspicion is lawful even if the officer’s subjective motivation was to investigate a more serious offense, Watford said. He emphasized, however, that under Moreno v. Baca (2005) 431 F.3d 633, the stop must have an objectively reasonable basis, grounded in facts known to the officers at the time.
The judge went on to say that the information obtained as a result of the stop gave the officers probable cause to seize the car. Since the information from the wiretaps had proven reliable, they had reason to believe that once they stopped the correct car, they would find methamphetamine inside, Watford reasoned.
“The investigatory stop eliminated virtually any doubt on that score, as the stop confirmed that a man named Juan Sanchez was indeed a passenger in the car,” he wrote. “Sure, he could have been a different Juan Sanchez, not the one mentioned in the wiretap intercepts, but the likelihood of that was minuscule given all the other details that matched, including the tattoo on Magallon-Lopez’s arm and the fact that both he and Sanchez admitted they were traveling to Minnesota.”
Senior Judge Raymond Fisher joined in the opinion, while Judge Marsha Berzon concurred separately.
The Whren line of cases, she said, seemed to lead to the “distressing conclusion” that it’s “fine for police officers flatly to tell the drivers they stop that they observed ... a traffic violation when they really did not.”
The case is United States v. Magallon-Lopez, 14-30429.
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