Court Tells Deputy He Can't Lie About Reasons For A Traffic Stop And Expect To Keep His Evidence
from the you-can-lie-to-the-citizens.-you-can't-lie-to-the-court. dept
The nation’s courts don’t have a problem with pretextual traffic stops. Any traffic violation — real or imagined — can trigger an investigatory stop. There are limits, of course. The Supreme Court’s Rodriguez decision says officers can’t extend stops past the objective of the stop if reasonable suspicion of additional criminal activity fails to materialize.
It’s perfectly legal to pull someone over for crossing a fog line when all you really want to do is search their vehicle for contraband. But you have to stick to the pretext… at least for the most part. A host of excuses and exceptions (good faith, plain view, “I smelled marijuana,” etc.) salvage most stops-turned-searches but if a defendant can show the stop itself was bogus, all bets are off.
This short federal court decision [PDF] ordered the suppression of evidence obtained during a pretextual stop, and calls out a sheriff’s deputy for lying about the reason for the stop, one that resulted in the discovery of drugs and weapons. (via The Newspaper)
According to the police narrative, a stop was performed on Cedric Gordon’s vehicle because his rear license plate wasn’t properly illuminated.
In his narrative, Deputy Forbert maintains that he attempted to read the vehicle’s license tag number but was unable to do so because the vehicle’s tag lights were out. Deputy Forbert followed the Defendant’s vehicle for approximately two minutes, or one-half mile, before initiating the traffic stop because the tag lights were out. After initiating the traffic stop, Deputy Forbert approached the Defendant’s vehicle and claims he smelled marijuana coming from the vehicle. Deputy Forbert ran the vehicle’s tag number and the Defendant’s criminal history came back positive. Deputy Forbert subsequently arrested the Defendant and the vehicle was searched, revealing a firearm and controlled substances.
This story might have held up anywhere but in court, where actual evidence needs to be presented. Gordon presented his, which included photos of his vehicle during the traffic stop — photos that clearly showed his rear license plate was illuminated.
Faced with actual evidence, Deputy Forbert began backtracking on his original testimony, covering up his lies with more lies. The court details the Forbert’s attempts to move the goalposts.
At the hearing on this Motion , Deputy Forbert repeatedly contradicted the statements contained in his narrative and provided implausible testimony regarding the reasonable suspicion he had at the time of initiating the traffic stop. For example, Deputy Forbert’s narrative stated that he initiated the traffic stop because the vehicle’s tag lights were not working, but when questioned by the Court, Deputy Forbert admitted that the Defendant’s tag lights were working on the night in question. Instead, Deputy Forbert explained that he initiated the traffic stop because the Defendant’s license tag was not illuminated brightly enough. Deputy Forbert claimed that he was unable to read the darkened tag from fifty feet away, as required under the statute. When questioned further by the Court, Deputy Forbert maintained that the tag was too dimly lit to read even forty feet away. However, Deputy Forbert eventually admitted at the hearing that he was able to see that the tag lights were in fact working and that the tag was illuminated once he stopped the vehicle.
With the license plate story destroyed, Deputy Forbert tried to bring in a new set of goalposts. The court wants nothing to do with them.
The Government also argues that even if the Defendant’s tag lights were working properly, Deputy Forbert had reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop because the seatbelt violation alone was sufficient to justify the stop. At the suppression hearing, Deputy Forbert stated that he intended to perform a traffic stop for a seatbelt violation, contrary to the narrative he prepared the day of the traffic stop. Deputy Forbert maintained that he had reasonable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop because he was able to see the passenger attempting to put her seatbelt on through the tinted windows. However, when questioned by the Court, Deputy Forbert admitted that the windows were darkly tinted and stated that he did not actually view the passenger without her seatbelt on. Based on the evidence and testimony presented at the hearing on this matter, the Court finds the evidence of a seatbelt violation unconvincing.
In other words, the court believes the officer is lying. Of course, it’s never phrased this way, but a court stating it does not find an officer’s testimony credible is about as close to calling them a liar as a federal court will ever get. The end result is the suppression of evidence, the only thing supporting Cedric Gordon’s conviction. Without the gun and drugs, all the government’s left with is what it had to begin with: a vehicle with properly-illuminated license plates.