Your Tax Dollars At Work: Cops Arguing They Thought A Small Envelope Might Have Contained A Weapon

from the most-unreliable-narrators-of-all dept

When a police officer violates rights, they’re put in the awkward position of defending their actions. If qualified immunity isn’t immediately awarded to them by far-too-compliant courts, they’ve got to put in their work in defending the indefensible. That’s when taxpayer dollars get spent defending actions that violate the rights of taxpayers.

And there are so many examples of bad behavior no one should be defending in court. Here are cops arguing that someone invoking their rights is suspicious behavior. Here’s one claiming that driving carefully and obeying all traffic laws is suspicious. Here are two cops claiming there’s an expectation of privacy in the room they used to drink alcohol and nap while on the clock. Here are some officers claiming Constitutional rights are time-wasting bullshit.

There’s just so much of it. It would be darkly comic if it wasn’t so tragic and/or frightening. Here’s a school resource officer claiming a small amount of missing cash justified the strip search of twenty-two preteen girls. Here’s another arguing it’s OK to arrest a bunch of middle school students to “prove a point.” Oh and it’s apparently just good police work to hurl a flashbang grenade in the general direction of a toddler.

This is all a lead-in to this gem of a defense, offered by cops hoping to see their small drug bust survive their unconstitutional actions. (via

After running a red light, Joshua West was approached by a police officer after he had already parked his truck in the County Administration Building’s parking lot. Officer Williams asked West to get back in his truck and proceeded to ask him questions about the truck’s ownership, since it only had dealer tags in the window. West presented the officer with some paperwork — including his valid license and insurance information. Officer Williams began writing a ticket for the red light violation.

At some point during this stop, West dropped a small object on the floor of his truck. The officers weren’t sure what it was but they really wanted to take a look. So, without actually having the legal permission to do so (West did not give consent), they began searching the truck. During this search, they found the object West had dropped: a small envelope (one that was — according to the officers — “concealed in West’s fist”) containing a clear plastic bag with methamphetamine in it.

They then performed a second search, which turned up even more drugs. West moved to suppress this evidence, arguing the initial search of his truck was unjustified.

Here’s where it gets ridiculous. The officers claimed the first unlawful search was in fact lawful because it was done for “officer safety.” Somehow, this “protective search” for weapons inside the truck allowed the officer to open an envelope and inspect its contents. The appeals court [PDF] agrees with the district court: this is a very stupid thing to assert.

The district court found that the envelope — which had been in West’s hands and lap to the end of the encounter — was full of papers and could not have been used to hide even a small weapon without first pushing the papers aside and without creating a visible bulge. In the light of these circumstances, no reasonable suspicion could exist that would support Officer Sorrell’s initial search of West’s truck or the envelope for weapons.

Not only that, but there was nothing about the stop or West’s behavior that should have given the officers any reason to suspect he was dangerous or carrying weapons he planned to use against them.

Given the totality of the circumstances presented in this case, we conclude that no probable cause existed to justify Officer Sorrell’s initial search of West’s truck. West was pulled over for having run a red light. West engaged in no erratic driving, and nothing evidenced that West attempted to flee. Neither officer had had prior dealings with or knowledge of West before the traffic stop. Nor did either officer smell or see marijuana or other contraband inside the truck.

During the traffic stop, West complied with Officer Williams’s orders, provided Officer Williams with the requested information and documents, and remained calm and cooperative. Officer Williams confirmed that West had a valid driver’s license and no outstanding warrants. These circumstances gave the officers no good reason to suspect West of engaging in criminal activity beyond running a red light.

The Appeals Court also disagrees with the sworn statements made by the officers, which were undermined by their own silent witness.

Although Officers Williams and Sorrell testified that West appeared nervous and agitated during this interaction with Officer Williams, the district court found that the officers’ testimony about West’s demeanor was contradicted by the video recording of the traffic stop.

All of this unjustified behavior led directly to cops arguing in court that they had to search an envelope because it might have contained a weapon. The evidence is gone, along with the conviction. And this was done with tax dollars. The government argued on behalf of these cops who couldn’t take down a drug user without ignoring the Constitution. Lots of things are done in our name, using our money. Arguing that an small envelope might have contained a gun shouldn’t be one of them.

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Comments on “Your Tax Dollars At Work: Cops Arguing They Thought A Small Envelope Might Have Contained A Weapon”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Daydream says:

So, a police officer ‘searched’ the vehicle, and came back with a pocket-sized bag of drugs allegedly found in the envelope.
On a second ‘search’, two officers came back with their hands filled with a few more pocket-sized baggies and a single used cigarette.
(And a weighing scale and some prescription medications, but there’s nothing wrong with those.)

Isn’t it amazing how whenever police perform an illegal search, they always find drugs in small, easy-to-pocket packages? They must have incredibly keen noses!

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Re: Illegal substances

…kilos of illegal substances.

Just to be 100% precise in language… substances are not unlawful. They don’t commit criminal offenses and they can not be charged with a crime. Possession of some substances in certain quantities by some people is unlawful possession.

The same "kilos of [heroin]" when in possession of the arresting officer is legal. The same in the hands of a non-LEO is not. That’s because criminal statutes make it unlawful to possess these items.

In some states the statutes clarify that "possession" includes "in your body" so they can do an in-vivo test and verify you have it. In other states if you swallow up the kilo (!!!) and leave no traces in the vehicle you’re good to go [throw up soon or die!]

The point I’m making, and yes, I tried to be funny, is that SUBSTANCES DO NOT COMMIT CRIMINAL OFFENSES. People do. So there are no "illegal guns", "illegal drugs", "illegal aliens", etc. There are people who violate specific passed statutes.

We now return you to your regular Saturday programming.


Upstream (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Illegal substances

They don’t commit criminal offenses . . .

Asset forfeiture laws are based on the completely bizarre and nonsensical legal fiction that inanimate objects (assets or property) can commit crimes, and that the punishment of those inanimate objects for committing crimes is that ownership of those inanimate objects be transferred to the government.

This is just one of many equally insane "legal fictions" that one will find in the law. Others include: Cops tell the truth, prosecutors seek justice, judges are not biased, forensic evidence doesn’t lie, expert witnesses are honest (and experts), eyewitness testimony is true . . . the list goes on.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Illegal substances

Well we’re on the same side here, but to be precise… CRIMINAL asset forfeiture is brought against the DEFENDANT. Civil (don’t get me started) forfeiture is brought against the asset.

Assets don’t commit crimes — people do.

^^^ I know it says "" but there’s no justice to be had there.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

While I’m all for penalties for rights violations a system that would allow them ten of them before they lost their entire pension seems pretty lenient, given I’m pretty sure in just about any other job you would be canned long before you got to ten major screw-ups related to your job(well, unless you’re an exec).

I’m personally in favor of a ‘violate rights, you get twice the punishment the accused would have faced on top of a base penalty’ system, but if it had to be percentage based I’d say go with baseball rules, where each ‘strike’ costs them 33% of their pension and at strike three they’re out, with the entire pension gone and them fired and blacklisted from law enforcement for life.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Cops who lie under oath...

…should be immediately prosecuted and fired.

"I thought that flat envelope had a weapon in it and even though the suspect was in cuffs outside the vehicle I had to open it immediately."

"You have the right to remain silent. The stupid things you’ve already said and anything else you utter can and will be used against you…"


ThatOtherOtherGuy says:

And then...

…the two officers were immediately terminated for cause by the local police department and the department made a pre-emptive settlement offer to the individual to compensate for wrongful arrest and fraudulent reporting by the officers.

In addition, the local DA brought charges against both officers for wrongful submission of a police report.

Both officers have sought employment with other area law enforcement but were summarily rejected after the termination for cause came to light.

In addition, the police department held additional training with all officers using this case as a specific example in the "probable cause" section of the training classes.

This comment has been deemed funny by the community.
Bill Silverstein (profile) says:

Stop giving the cops a hard time.

There could have been a weapon in that envelope. It could have been adrenalizine. It could have been a large splinter from a very powerful magic wand. It could have been one of the Infinity stones.

I learned about those things in the historical archives.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Stop giving the cops a hard time.

"It could have been adrenalizine. It could have been a large splinter from a very powerful magic wand. It could have been one of the Infinity stones."

I hear The One Ring is still out there somewhere. Obvious that right-thinking champions of Law and Justice would do all they can to ensure it be kept out of reach of that Sauron fellow.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Re: Stop giving the cops a hard time.

I went to school with him. Yeah, he was a little rough on the edges, and yeah, he kept putting eyedrops in his eyes. He wasn’t that bad. Not like that Gimli guys ghhhh couldn’t stand him.

Frankly when Bilbo and I hung out we’d have a good time. When the kids came over (Frodo, Pippen, etc.) it was not so much fun. Sauron was just that guy we never liked in college.


Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Stop giving the cops a hard time.

"Sauron was just that guy we never liked in college. "

So you admit you know him? Come over here for a second, son, we’re gonna have to check your ‘tailpipe’ for small, easily transported envelopes containing plastic bags with white powder or gold rings. Anything you care to share before we start or should I just read you the miranda?

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