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.
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.