Cop: Screwdrivers And Wrenches Are Drug Dealer Things; Appeals Court: WTF

from the you-can't-fix-stupid-but-you-can-at-least-deny-it-immunity dept

Some things most of us keep in our vehicles is considered by at least one police officer to be tools of the drug trade. Literal tools. Of the literal drug trade. I guess. The bad news is even more of us keep these items at home. We’re drowning in contraband, it appears. Those of us with attached garages should just brace ourselves for early morning no-knock raids.

This decision [PDF] by the Sixth Circuit Appeals Court starts as so many qualified immunity cases do: with a pretextual stop.

On May 22, 2014, Harris, along with her mother, father and older sister, went out for dinner at TGI Friday’s. On the way home, their minivan was stopped by City of Erlanger police officers because of an obstructed license plate. The officers then conducted an investigation of Harris’s mother, who was the driver. Her mother was arrested for obstructing a license plate, driving with no registration plates, driving with a suspended license, and possession of a forged instrument.

The footnote attached to “forged instrument” notes there’s nothing on the record showing Brittany Harris’ mother was ever actually charged by prosecutors with these alleged crimes. All that’s on record is the booking. Brittany, who was seventeen at the time, is the one bringing the suit. That’s because as things developed during this stop, she was subjected to an invasive search.

Brittany asked to go to the restroom after she and her family had spent more than an hour being detained by six squad cars full of officers. She was accompanied by Officer Kimberly Klare, who did this before allowing Brittany to enter the restroom.

The parties agree that at this point, Klare secured Harris’s hands behind her back. What happened next is disputed, but, as noted, for purposes of this summary judgment appeal, we must accept Harris’s version of events. She claims that, as part of a pat down, Klare placed her hands under Harris’s brassiere and pinched the girl’s breasts, causing bruising. According to Harris, Klare told her that she searched her the way she did because a previous suspect at that location had “stuffed needles in her bra” and because “[y]ou have that look,” “[y]ou have the look of a junkie whore.” But Klare found no drugs, drug paraphernalia, weapon, or other contraband on Harris.

That’s some fine community policing by Klare, who called someone a “junkie whore” but found nothing to corroborate her expert assessment of Harris’ character. Now, you may be asking, why was a drug dog brought onto the scene when the only charges had to do with license plates and driver’s licenses? Well, that’s where it gets absolutely insane.

During the investigation, officers also noticed that Harris’s father had “equipment for his work” in the vehicle, including “tools, like screwdrivers and wrenches,” some of which were “sitting out” and some of which were “in containers.” Based on the presence of these tools in conjunction with the violations listed above, the officers began to suspect that Harris’s mother was engaged in drug activity.

No treats for the dog, though.

They sent for a drug dog, but it found no drugs.

I’m sorry. That’s only the mostly-completely insane part of this. Here’s the batshit insanity: the lower court granted Officer Klare qualified immunity.

The district court agreed with Klare. It held that the officers had probable cause to stop the minivan because of the obscured license plate and that the presence of Harris’s father’s tools and equipment in the car, in conjunction with her mother’s alleged misfeasance, created a reasonable suspicion of drug activity…

The appeals court says the lower court is oh so very wrong on both counts. It also has zero respect for any officer making these claims. As for the driving offenses “supporting” the drug dealer theory, the appeals court has this to say:

We have serious doubts as to whether the officers reasonably suspected the Harris family of manufacturing or transporting contraband. Klare provides no reason to suppose that Harris’s mother’s alleged traffic violations made it more likely that drug activity was afoot—if anything, one would expect a drug-trafficking family to avoid fastidiously such violations for fear of discovery.

If you don’t want extra police attention, you keep your driving stuff in order. That’s why police so often claim clean vehicles and drivers with no records are also tools of the drug trade — because drug dealers don’t want to give officers any reason to perform a pretextual stop. This claim goes the other direction, ensuring drivers are damned either way, and turning a nation of non-criminal drivers into erstwhile drug dealers.

As to the presence of tools everyone owns somehow being indicative of drug dealing, the appeals court finds this argument equally ridiculous.

Nor does Klare explain how the possession of worker’s tools, which is not itself “inherently illegal or even suspicious,” could have provided the officers with a reason to suspect drug activity. See United States v. Warfield, 727 F. App’x 182, 188–89 (6th Cir. 2018) (holding that the possession of eight cartons of cigarettes was not suggestive of the possession of untaxed cigarettes). The record contains no reason to believe that screwdrivers and wrenches—or any of the other tools in the vehicle—are particularly indicative of drug manufacture or transportation.

The rest of the opinion deals with the nature of the search performed on Harris. The court finds there’s a factual dispute over the timing of the search, which Harris argues came after the drug dog arrived and found no drugs. If Officer Klare was aware of this, she no longer had probable cause to perform a search of Harris before she entered the restroom.

There was also no consent given for the search, further distancing it from Constitutionality. The appeals court notes a number of coercive elements that might have pressured Harris into subjecting herself to a search. The record shows nothing indicating she ever consented, but the presence of six police officers and a drug dog — along with a need to use the restroom as the traffic stop extended into its second hour — were coercive enough to eliminate the officer’s claim about Harris’ supposed consent. (All Harris did — after being cuffed — was come towards Officer Klare when she was asked to, at which point the search occurred.)

Officer Klare’s qualified immunity — handed to her by an amazingly helpful lower court — is stripped. This doesn’t mean she’ll end up losing the lawsuit, but it does mean she’ll have to face a jury trial over her alleged Constitutional violations.

The case in its entirety is a brutal reminder that officers — if so inclined — can declare anything kept in a vehicle to be indicative of criminal activity. This just adds tools to a long list that already includes air fresheners, trash, a lack of trash, cigarettes in the ashtray, too much luggage, too little luggage, a departure point or destination where people could conceivably be purchasing/selling drugs, etc. If a cop wants to search a vehicle, they’ll find a reason to. And that leaves citizens with the option of living life with violated rights or hiring a lawyer to spend the next several years seeking redress.

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Comments on “Cop: Screwdrivers And Wrenches Are Drug Dealer Things; Appeals Court: WTF”

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38 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

A sterling example of professional conduct

Sexual assault because they ‘looked the type’, and a search of the person and vehicle because of the presence of simple tools.

Yeah, no jokes, not even dark humor, just a dearly held hope that the jury at least gives a damn and punishes, personally, the scum who apparently feels that molesting people and calling them a whore is even remotely in the real of acceptable or professional.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Nah, Home Depot is owned by a large company, one with the resources to fight back. Bullies and thugs prefer their victims to be less powerful than them, unable to resist, so even though Home Depot is clearly drug dealer central with all those tools, much safer to go after the individuals and/or their daughters.

Anonymous Coward says:

Klare placed her hands under Harris’s brassiere and pinchedbecause a previous suspect at that location had “stuffed needles in her bra”

Yes, because the right way to search for drug needles is definitely to grope around where you can’t see (since the victim’s clothes would have concealed the needles, were any present) and wait to see if you get pricked by the needle. Even if this search had been legal and proper, I have a hard time seeing any way to do it more stupidly.

David says:

Re: Re:

Yes, because the right way to search for drug needles is definitely to grope around where you can’t see (since the victim’s clothes would have concealed the needles, were any present) and wait to see if you get pricked by the needle.

You are being naively charitable. The needles would be on the inside of the bra. The idea was not to get any prospective needle injure the officer but the girl.

Which is assuming that "placed her hands under Harris’ brassiere and pinched" implies several layers of clothing or a bad description since pinching on naked skin would only serve to detect needles hidden under the skin.

You see I am struggling to make even some sort of feeble sense of the officer’s pretense, assuming that there is one. Occam’s razor would make it a much less complicated explanation that the officer enjoyed being in a position of power and letting the girl feel it.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

You see I am struggling to make even some sort of feeble sense of the officer’s pretense, assuming that there is one. Occam’s razor would make it a much less complicated explanation that the officer enjoyed being in a position of power and letting the girl feel it.

Pretty sure you just nailed the actual reason there, enjoying their power and/or ability to molest someone and wanting to rub it in the victim’s face that they could blatantly abuse it/them, with the victim having to stand there and take it.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Oh come on.

In my use of tools there is a significant difference between screwing and wrenching, even though they both involve threads. Threads is where the officers may have become confused.

When one thinks of threads, they might think of cloth. When they also have drugs on their minds they might also think about marijuana which can be confused with hemp which is made into cloth in some places.

So we have a confluence of tools, threads, cloth, drugs and…well the head just spins. And spins. When ones head is spinning what is one to do? Is it possible to think clearly? Is it possible not to be paranoid? Is it possible for all of these things to happen at the same time? Why would a visual display not send them to some alternative head space where anything might be real?

Given the above conjecture, there is reasonable reason to consider that the cops might have been on drugs. At least in their minds. Is there a virtual test that can be applied months after the fact, or must we rely on analysis of various behaviors where motive must be impugned?

Where is my virtual headset? I have some impugning to do. I hear they have live sex on Steam nowadays. Is that anything like drugs?

/s

zyffyr (profile) says:

Re: Re:

This happened in Kentucky, where part of their laws is :

Under KRS 510.110(1)(d), it is "sexual abuse in the first degree" for "a person in a position of authority or position of special trust" (as defined in KRS 532.045, including but not limited to parents, stepparents, foster parents, teachers, coaches, corrections personnel, religious leaders, and employers) to:

engage in sexual conduct with a person under 18, if the minor came into contact with the adult as a result of the adult’s special position,

masturbate in the presence of said person under 18, or

masturbate while communicating by telephone, Internet, or other electronic means with any person known by the adult to be under 16 (regardless of whether the actor’s position brought him or her into contact with the minor), and the minor can see or hear the adult masturbate.

So, the question becomes whether or not the grope is determined to qualify as "sexual contact". I expect it would, but sometime the law isn’t as simple as it seems.

Assuming it is, it is a Class D felony which carries a penalty of 1 to 5 years in prison.

Killercool (profile) says:

Other things "drug dealers" do, and why...

  • Speeding – rushing to drop off the drugs
  • Going the speed limit – only criminals are so careful
  • Going under the speed limit – what are you trying to hide?
  • Driving on major highways – drug traffickers do that!
  • Driving on side roads – trying to avoid attention
  • Using high beams – there were those stories from the 90s, snopes.com be damned
  • Not using high beams – obviously reckless
  • New car – bought with drug money
  • Not new car – definitely packed with the mari-ja-wanna
  • Old car – stoned
  • Driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood – "I’ve never seen you around here before!"
  • Driving in a familiar neighborhood – "I’ve seen you around here before!"
  • Having a criminal record – self explanatory
  • Not having a criminal record – haven’t been caught yet
  • Driving while black – has weed or crack
  • Driving while brown – has weed or cocaine
  • Driving while white – has weed or meth
Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Take the test and win a prize

Which of the following is not drug paraphernalia? Plastic fork with no tines, headless plastic doll, sun-bleached t-shirt, empty cracker wrapper, discharged flashlight battery, used tampon shell, trashy romance novel missing pages 81 to 92, wadded sheets of old newspaper, 89 cents in miscellaneous loose change, broken collar button, TV remote with no batteries, Bon Jovi CD, or an empty Wendy’s fast food bag.

Answer. The joke is on you. Evidently, to a cop, anything whatever can be suspicion of drug activity, if you have the “right look.” (Which, in turn, probably comes down to being the “wrong” color.)

Anonymous Coward says:

so much for ‘home of the brave, land of the free’! the USA is getting more and more like a police state, with less and less freedom and privacy, where everyone is felon and/or villain unless they can bribe someone with enough money to set them free because proving you are truthful just isn’t good enough anymore and being killed for no reason is far easier and common an act carried out by those who are supposed to protect you, it beggars belief!!
the USA left the ‘protection’ of England because of what the English were doing. now it is worse than England and influencing so many other nations to be the same. what a turn-around!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I agree that the U.S. is really fucked up and that it’s very hypocritical when you consider that they historically founded the U.S. to escape government oppression, corruption and overregulation.

However, I’d still say the U.K. is worse by comparison. At least in the U.S. you can still (mostly) speak your mind and own a potato peeler without a licence. Also, the bar is a lot higher for sexual assault; you must be wealthy and/or powerful to get away with rape in the U.S., whereas in the U.K. all you need to be is brown-skinned.

Anonymous Coward says:

If you live in the U.S., if you hate this shit and if you have the money, grab your passports and your family and LEAVE THAT COUNTRY TO ROT. Your taxes are paying the salaries of these police, after all. If you’re too poor to move, that sucks, but if you can afford it, don’t spend another day giving money to your corrupt government or its police.

tom (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Better yet, get off your lazy ass and register to vote and then vote. Especially in the local city council/sheriff elections. That is the level where most of the BS police policy gets set. Even better, file for office. Often a cheap way to get the issue into the public eye. Even if you don’t spend much for your campaign, the local press will often do a who filed for office and what their platform is line up in the local paper. The filing fee, if any, is often cheaper then even a small ad in the local media.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

George Bush sr once coined the phrase ‘kinder gentler nation’ not that the government was now going to be kinder and gentler.. he was talking about throwing everyone behind bars for normal human shit. Policies that are in motion now are coming from the top not the bottom. The u.n. is pushing the gun agenda because at some point there is going to be marshall law. They are militarizing city and state cops because there is going to be house to house warfare.

Agammamon says:

Re: Re:

Where are you going to go? Well, maybe Lichtenstein.

What other country is any better?

The UK? Canada? Australia? France, Germany, China?

They all do the same drug war shit and more besides.

The US is a deeply, deeply flawed country – and despite that its still the best one in the world. Well, outside of Lichtenstein.

Anonymous Coward says:

Some day those who make life tough for everyday people are going to get their medicine doled out to themselves. FEMA has enough hollow point rounds to last seven years in an all out war against citizens in this country that will be shot by foreign troops or wtf our government usurped as it is because you can’t use those hollow point rounds according to Geneva convention in a foreign war. WTF?

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