Cop Shuts Off Dashcam During Drug Dog Sniff. Appeals Court: This Is Fine.
from the can't-give-those-hard-working-officers-enough-slack dept
If cops have the ability and opportunity to record a traffic stop, should it be held against them when they don’t? Arguments have been made to that effect for a few years now. Dashcams have been in wide use for at least a couple of decades. Law enforcement agencies all over the US are issuing body cameras to officers. But it seems whenever something questionable happens, footage is nowhere to be found, or what there is of it is almost useless.
Unfortunately, years of discussion by (mainly) defense lawyers hasn’t resulted in policy changes. Worse, it hasn’t budged the judicial needle much. In rare cases, the absence of footage is used against officers, but in those cases, it mainly seems to be because efforts were made to destroy footage already captured.
In this case [PDF] reviewed by the Sixth Circuit Appeals Court, no effort was made post facto to destroy footage. Instead, an officer proactively prevented footage from being created by disabling the dashcam recording the traffic stop. (via FourthAmendment.com)
The defendant made a few different arguments for suppression of evidence obtained via a search of his vehicle. Citing Rodriguez, he claimed the wait for the K9 unit unnecessarily prolonged the traffic stop. The appeals court disagreed, saying its interpretation of the Supreme Court’s decision gives officers about 20 minutes to freely violate citizens’ rights.
Defendant next argues that the search violated the Fourth Amendment because the officers extended the stop beyond the time required to investigate the traffic violation in order to conduct a canine sniff. The district court determined that the delay was not excessive, relying upon United States v. Collazo, 818 F.3d 247, 257-58 (6th Cir. 2016), in which we countenanced a traffic stop that exceeded twenty-one minutes based on the totality of the circumstances. Here, the district court observed that the canine unit appeared within ten minutes of the stop, the car’s paperwork, which was a rental, did not include any of the passengers as authorized drivers, and the GPS information indicated that defendant had been out-of-state, which was prohibited by the terms of his parole. While these factors might individually have an innocent explanation, the court found that “from a law enforcement perspective all that adds up . . . to a reasonable suspicion for an extension, which . . . wasn’t very long anyway.”
This completely ignores Supreme Court precedent, which made it clear it wasn’t the length of the rights violation, but rather the violation itself. Once the purpose of the traffic stop has been achieved, any fishing expeditions by law enforcement past that point are Constitutional violations, whether it’s five minutes, ten minutes, or a half hour. A holding like this makes it that much easier for officers to slow roll traffic stops so they can run a drug dog around a car they stopped for a lane change violation. That’s what appears to have happened here and both courts (district, appellate) said this is fine.
Trooper Boven returned to his cruiser after collecting everyone’s identification and ran the information through two law enforcement databases to check for outstanding warrants and to confirm that Mercedes Hunt was a valid driver. Defendant contends that Trooper Boven entered the information slowly in order to prolong the traffic stop until the canine unit arrived, which it did shortly after he finished processing the licenses.
In this case, there was plenty to be reasonably suspicious about, hence the call for the K9 unit. But once the K9 unit arrived something strange happened. The officer turned off his dashcam, ostensibly to “protect” the confidentiality of an informant.
Once Deputy Osbun arrived, Trooper Boven explained the situation to him to “keep him in the loop” and for officer safety. He also turned off the dashboard camera. According to his testimony, he did so to prevent information about the confidential informant from coming to light in case the stop revealed no drugs. After speaking with Deputy Osbun, however, Trooper Boven apparently forgot to restart the dashboard camera and, as a result, there is no footage of the search of the car. In total, twenty minutes elapsed before the camera was restarted.
The defendant challenged this, stating the missing footage prevented him from directly challenging the supposed probable cause generated by the dog’s nose. And there were sufficient reasons on record to warrant doing so.
Defendant contends that the lack of a visual record of the search undermines his ability to challenge the legitimacy of the canine alert to narcotics. First, there are no records maintained of the dog’s prior performance in the field. Second, Deputy Osbun recalled up to six false alerts at the suppression hearing, which defendant contends is a significant number given that dogs are deployed only when the presence of drugs is suspected. Third, the lack of dashboard camera footage makes it nearly impossible for defendant to challenge whether Deputy Osbun’s interaction with the dog may have influenced its subsequent alert. Finally, defendant characterizes the missing video footage as “spoliation” for which the government must be held responsible.
The district court, however, didn’t view this as spoliation of evidence. For the most part, the legal argument is sound. You can’t ruin evidence that doesn’t exist. The problem is that if you can prevent such evidence from ever existing, you can probably get your questionable actions excused by the courts.
The Appeals Court affirms the lower court’s decision. While the totality of the circumstances makes this a less-than-ideal test case, the fact remains too much slack is being cut by the courts. The camera could have been left on. Any concerns the trooper had about his informant’s confidentiality could have been addressed by the department. They could have been presented to the court prior to turning over the footage in case redactions were warranted. But shutting off a camera during a stop — especially a pretextual stop where an officer deliberately slowed down his ticket-writing duties to bring a drug dog to the scene — should be treated as a failure to preserve evidence by law enforcement.
In this case, the Sixth Circuit does double damage: it ignores the issues raised by cops disabling cameras during traffic stops, and gives officers in its jurisdiction 20 minutes in which to violate rights (and the Supreme Court’s Rodriguez decision) without fear of reprisal.