Judge Orders Lying, Cheating Government To Return $167,000 To The Man They Stole It From
from the nothing-civil-about-this-forfeiture dept
A federal judge has just ordered the government to return $167,000 it took from a man passing through Nevada on his way to visit his girlfriend in California. The officers really wanted that money, too. They used two consecutive stops to jerry-rig some probable cause… even though at that point they thought they were only dealing with $2000. From the original stop forward, the entire situation was deplorable, indisputably showing that everyone involved was more interested in taking (and keeping) a bunch of cash than enforcing laws or pursuing justice.
The order is a jaw-dropping read. It begins with the flimsiest of “reasonable suspicion” and heads downhill after that. Straughn Gorman was driving across Nevada in his RV when he was pulled over for a “left-lane violation” — driving too slow in the passing lane. (This itself isn’t actually a moving violation, but the Supreme Court’s Heien decision has ensured that law enforcement needn’t be slowed by actual knowledge of the laws they’re supposed to be enforcing.)
This lead to some questioning, because reasons:
Upon request, Gorman produced his license and registration and told Monroe that he was traveling to Sacramento, California to visit “his chick.” Id. at 60:9-61:5. Gorman told Monroe that his girlfriend lived in downtown Sacramento, but was not able to produce her exact address, noting that it was entered into his GPS system. Id. at 84:2- 22. Gorman’s use of the word “chick” aroused Monroe’s suspicion that Gorman’s answers were rehearsed because Monroe thought that “chick” was an unusual word for a person Gorman’s age—thirty-one at the time of the stop—to use.
Obsolete vernacular = “reasonable suspicion.” That and State Trooper Greg Monroe felt Gorman’s claimed employment with a “beach activities and paddle board company” sounded similarly “rehearsed.” Monroe went back to his vehicle and tried to rustle up a K9 unit. But there were no units nearby, the records check was coming up clean and Monroe was running out of ideas. First, he told Gorman he was free to leave. Then he started fishing:
Immediately afterward, Monroe asked Gorman if he could ask some additional questions. Monroe first asked how Gorman could afford to drive a motor home cross-country when gas prices were over $3.00 per gallon. Monroe then asked if Gorman still sold paddle boards for a living, and asked about his compensation, to which Gorman responded “I don’t want to talk about how much I make.” At approximately 9:25 a.m., Monroe asked if there was anything illegal in Gorman’s motor home, or if he was carrying large amounts of U.S. currency. Gorman then told Monroe that he was only carrying about $2000 in U.S. currency in the motor home. At 9:25:45 a.m, Monroe asked Gorman “do you mind if we search the vehicle?,” to which Gorman said “I do mind, yes.” At this point, Monroe told Gorman that he was free to leave [for the second time], returned to his vehicle, and said “he’s carrying money” aloud to himself.
Monroe smelled money and he wasn’t about to let $2000 travel across his state without being apprehended. So, he called the Highway Patrol and told dispatch his suspcions, stating that the only way the vehicle could be searched was with the use of a drug dog. Dispatch called Deputy Doug Fisher and informed him that Gorman did not consent to a search and that he “might want to follow up on the information.” Here we have two different law enforcement entities basically colluding to perform a search simply because one entity experienced a refusal. The court isn’t impressed.
The Court is particularly troubled that the officers’ belief that Gorman would not consent to a search, and his opposition to the canine sniff, appears to have contributed to the officers’ purported reasonable suspicion to extend the stop and continue the investigation. Individuals have a right to refuse consent for a search, and the existence of this right requires that denial of consent not be a basis to prolong a stop.
On top of this, Monroe called Deputy Fisher directly to “relay his suspicions.” He also inflated the amount of money Gorman had admitted to be carrying with him — from $2000 to $5000. Fisher left the Sheriff’s Office ostensibly to perform a “roving patrol,” but soon decided to park himself on the side of the highway in order to catch Gorman when his RV passed by. Fisher pulled the RV over after it “crossed the fog line” a few times.
Having been stopped for a second time in under an hour, Gorman was understandably annoyed. He told Fisher the same thing he had told Monroe during his twenty-minute stop earlier. Fisher ran the same records checks and received the same lack of anything actionable. Despite this, Fisher pushed for a canine search.
[A]pproximately twelve minutes into the traffic stop, Fisher released his drug-detection canine “Euros” from his vehicle. Fisher and Euros then approached the motor home and began walking around it in the clockwise direction, starting at the rear left-hand side of the vehicle. As Fisher and Euros circled the rear of the motorhome, Euros sat down near the vehicle’s back right compartment, facing the compartment. Fisher described this as a “committed sit and stare,” which he considered to be a positive alert.
Even if you believe — like the Supreme Court does — that drug dogs are mostly reliable and unlikely to respond to signals (unconscious or otherwise) from their handlers, Fisher’s next statements indicate that bringing a drug dog onto the scene is just an easy way to generate “probable cause” where none exists.
Gorman then referred to the back rear compartment and said “I can open that if you want to look in it. It’s charcoal and stuff like that, do you want to look in it?” Fisher replied “do you want to talk to me now?” Gorman replied “if he alerted somewhere, look in it because there’s no drugs.” Fisher then noted that odor could come out anywhere on the vehicle, and that the rear back compartment was on the “downwind side of the vehicle.”
Armed with the drug dog’s affirmation that drugs might be located somewhere in the RV, the deputy acquired a telephonic warrant and immediately began searching the entire interior of the RV. And while the drug dog continued to “alert” on objects inside the vehicle, no drugs were found. The only thing “illegal” in Gorman’s motorhome was $167,000 in cash, stashed away in the freezer, microwave and bedroom. Gorman was (for the third time in under two hours) free to go. But his money wasn’t.
Gorman fought back. Almost two-and-a-half years from the point the money was taken, it is now ordered to be returned. On top of that, Gorman will also be awarded attorney’s fees. Why? Because the government lied every step of the way.
First off, two different law enforcement officers performed consecutive stops, with the second stop being predicated on the “suspicions” generated by the first. This is something law enforcement cannot do.
Here, Gorman was initially stopped for a minor traffic offense at approximately 9:03 a.m. and released at approximately 9:26 a.m. when Monroe concluded that he did not have probable cause to search the motor home. Gorman was stopped the second time, again for a minor traffic offense, at approximately 10:15 a.m., and held for more than nine minutes before Fisher asked if he could conduct a canine sniff. Fisher knew that Monroe had previously ran a records check and lacked probable cause to hold Gorman, but nonetheless two additional records checks were conducted in order to prolong the detention and make time for a canine sniff. The positive alert occurred approximately twelve minutes after the second traffic stop occurred.
All tolled, Gorman was detained for a total of approximately thirty-five minutes without convincing independent reasonable suspicion—before the officers conducted a canine sniff of the motor home and obtained probable cause for the search. Of course, “an individual who has already been seized can still be further seized for purposes of the Fourth Amendment.” Hopkins v. Bonvicino, 573 F.3d 752, 772 n.12 (9th Cir. 2009). But a second stop requires additional reasonable suspicion independent of the reasonable suspicion present in the first stop.
On top of that, the government — when arguing for its “right” to take money just because — claimed the two stops were entirely unrelated.
In its supplemental briefing, and after it became evident that the two stops were connected, the United States argues that “Monroe’s earlier traffic stop is wholly irrelevant to the Fourth Amendment analysis applicable to Gorman’s motion to suppress.” Specifically, the United States contends that “Fisher’s traffic stop was based on his own observations of traffic violations being committed by Gorman, without regard to any information provided” by Monroe. These statements cannot be reconciled with the testimony by Monroe and Fisher, or an independent review of the evidence before the Court.
Note the phrase “after it became evident.” This wasn’t evident at first. Deputy Fisher hid this fact from the magistrate judge when requesting a warrant over the phone and lied about what Gorman had actually told him.
[T]he warrant application never mentions Monroe’s original stop, that Monroe called Fisher with information about Gorman and Gorman’s vehicle, or that Fisher was dispatched to investigate Gorman. This omission thereby represented to the magistrate that Fisher pulled Gorman over solely due to his traffic violations, as opposed to having been encouraged to investigate Gorman by NHP and Monroe. Second, Fisher represents in the warrant application that Gorman “indicated he had no job.” This is unambiguously contradicted by the video of Fisher’s questioning of Gorman, in which Gorman states clearly that he works for a Maui paddle board company.
These lies — kindly called “omissions” by the court — sadly wouldn’t be enough on their own to suppress the evidence obtained by the search. But the application of the Supreme Court’s Rodriguez decision (officers can’t unnecessarily prolong stops to perform [often dog-assisted] fishing expeditions) does call for suppression.
But Deputy Fisher wasn’t the only one lying. The State’s Attorney’s office also lied to the court.
The Court is disappointed that the United States would aggressively pursue this forfeiture action while all of its moving documents for summary judgment and supporting affidavits contained material omissions concerning the history leading to the traffic stop and canine sniff at issue. The government’s Motion for Summary Judgment, with supporting affidavits from Deputy Fisher and the Assistant United States’ Attorney, made no disclosure of anything which would have suggested that Fisher’s stop was a follow-up on Monroe’s stop and was based upon suspicion of a drug related offense.
This is how the government portrayed Fisher’s actions in its provided documents.
On January 23, 2013, ECSO Deputy Doug Fisher was monitoring west-bound traffic on Interstate 80 near Elko, Nevada.
But, as pointed out earlier in the order, Doug Fisher wasn’t assigned to traffic patrol and wouldn’t have just been “monitoring traffic” if he hadn’t received a call from dispatch about Gorman’s RV, as well as a direct call from Trooper Monroe himself.
On top of the deceit at all levels, there were problems with the search itself. The drug dog alerted on a rear compartment. But rather than search that area, the deputies searched the entire vehicle.
[E]ven assuming that the officers had probable cause to search the back right compartment where the canine alerted, the Court is not convinced that the dog’s positive alert to the compartment gave the officers probable cause to search the entire motor home. Despite Gorman’s consent to search the compartment, the officers did not even begin their search of the motor home with the compartment, instead beginning with a search of the motor home’s main cabin. “Probable cause to believe that a container placed in the trunk of a taxi contains contraband or evidence does not justify a search of the entire cab.” United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 824 (1982)
The court doesn’t weigh this issue specifically (although it does express its skepticism) but it doesn’t have to. The prolonged detainment without probable cause is enough to suppress the evidence under Rodriguez.
The court sums it up succinctly while ordering the government to hand over not only Gorman’s original $167,000, but attorney’s fees as well.
Gorman is undoubtedly the successful party here.
This order shows law enforcement at its ugliest: willing to lie and cheat to maintain control of what it stole.