Court Refuses To Uphold Evidence Seized During A Completely Bogus Traffic Stop

from the law-enforcement-dashcam-key-witness-against-law-enforcement dept

Very rarely does anyone want to believe a defendant in a criminal prosecution. They have the most to lose, are often presumed guilty by all involved, and if they'd done nothing wrong, they wouldn't be here defending themselves, right? None of that is how the system is supposed to work. But that's how it often does.

Law enforcement officers, on the other hand, are often treated as unimpeachably credible, even when their recollections of events are less than accurate. Sometimes they get called out for it. Most times they don't. About the only way their dishonesty is called out if if there's another set of eyes on the scene -- like dashcams or body-worn cameras. (This, too, is far from a sure thing.)

That's what happened here. A bogus traffic stop that morphed into a drug bust began with zero traffic violations -- even though the officer performing the stop claimed at least two violations had occurred. (via FourthAmendment.com)

Victor Dominguez-Fernand was pulled over for allegedly driving with his headlights off and following too close to the vehicle ahead. Unfortunately for Deputy Nicholas Ernestes, his dashcam showed both claimed violations were bogus.

First off, the supposed violation of "driving with headlights off" was only a presumed violation. Deputy Ernestes testified that he "believed" headlights were required because of the weather conditions (overcast and raining) but couldn't actually assert that such a requirement exists.

This, of course, is hardly a fatal error. The Supreme Court (along with dozens of lower courts) have made it clear law enforcement isn't required to know the laws it's enforcing. All they have to do is believe a violation has occurred to perform a traffic stop.

Not that it mattered. When Ernestes turned on his lights to pull over Fernand, his dashcam kicked in, and it showed something completely different [PDF].

The available dash-cam video shows that the taillights on Mr. Dominguez-Fernand’s car were on for at least 30 seconds before Deputy Ernstes turned on his emergency lights.

If the taillights are on, the headlights are on. Ernestes also claimed Fernand was following too close to the vehicle ahead of him, even though Ernestes was unable to remember many details about the vehicle Fernand was supposedly tailgating.

Deputy Ernstes attested in an affidavit submitted before the hearing that he “pull[ed] his vehicle even with the black Mitsubishi” to confirm its speed and observed at that time that it was allegedly following the vehicle in front of it too closely. Deputy Ernstes does not remember what type of vehicle was in front of Mr. Dominguez-Fernand’s car. Deputy Ernstes testified that he used a method that involved counting the “skip lines” on the roadway to determine that Mr. Dominguez-Fernand’s car was allegedly closer to the vehicle in front of it than the “two-second rule” established in the Indiana Driving Manual. Deputy Ernstes testified that based on that calculation, he believed Mr. Dominguez-Fernand had violated Indiana Code § 9-21-8-14. Deputy Ernstes testified that he only saw the alleged traffic infraction for a few seconds.

Again, the dashcam saw it differently.

It shows that it was raining and that a box truck was in the distance in front of Mr. Dominguez-Fernand’s car.

The defendant recalled the incident in a way that more agrees with the dashcam footage than the deputy's affidavit and testimony.

Mr. Dominguez-Fernand had been driving for several hours and it had been raining heavily for ten to fifteen minutes before he was stopped by Deputy Ernstes. Mr. Dominguez-Fernand specifically remembered that the headlights on the car were turned on because he had been continuously driving through the night and the car’s dashboard was lit up for visibility. He emphasized that he drove a delivery truck for a living and that he was intentionally driving slower than the speed limit because of the rain. He maintained a five or six second distance between his car and the box truck in front of him because it was spraying a lot of water up because of the rain. Indeed, the dash-cam video shows that the rain caused trucks traveling on Interstate 70 to spray water behind them for a considerable distance.

Deputy Ernestes claimed the vehicle's lights were off when the defendant passed him, something the court finds dubious because this supposed reason for pulling over the defendant was never mentioned once during the course of the stop. Further, state law doesn't require the use of headlights in these weather conditions -- only if vehicles cannot be clearly seen within 500 feet. Ernestes' own testimony stated he could see cars approaching "up to one mile away" and they all had their headlights on. 5,280 feet being ten times the length required by statute means headlights or not, there was no violation.

The camera also showed Fernand was a safe distance behind the vehicle in front of him. So, despite Fernand's eventual consent to a search of the vehicle (which resulted in the discovery of amphetamines), the initial stop was so bogus the court cannot allow the subsequent search to stand.

The court also points out that Ernestes could have bolstered his claims that the violations occurred before the dashcam's automatic recording by simply using the recording device in his vehicle to, you know, record evidence.

The impact of these inconsistencies might have been lessened if Deputy Ernstes had manually turned on his dash-cam to record the traffic violation he claims to have seen. While he admits he could have done so, he did not, depriving the record of significant, reliable evidence.

As to the inconsistencies, they were more than just the fuzziness one would expect from a law enforcement who performs dozens of inconsequential traffic stops every shift. The inconsistencies stemmed from Ernestes' initial statements and paperwork.

Deputy Ernstes testified that he could not remember anything about the type of vehicle Mr. Dominguez-Fernand was allegedly too closely following. Deputy Ernstes’ affidavit, however, attests that he pulled alongside Mr. Dominguez-Fernand’s car to observe its speed and that it was allegedly too closely following the preceding vehicle, which would have given him a clear view of the large box truck Mr. Dominguez-Fernand was following. The imprecise nature of Deputy Ernstes’ recollection is further underscored by the Court’s previous conclusion that Deputy Ernstes was incorrect about the headlights on Mr. Dominguez-Fernand’s car being turned off, as well as Deputy Ernstes’ testimony at the hearing that he could only see one person in Mr. Dominguez-Fernand’s car, despite the fact that his affidavit states he could see “that two males were located inside of the vehicle” when he pulled alongside it.

And away goes the evidence, which is the only thing supporting the government's charges.

The Court has already held that the Government has not met its burden to show by a preponderance of the evidence that Deputy Ernstes had probable cause to stop Mr. Dominguez-Fernand’s car. Thus, the exclusionary rule forbids use of the unlawfully obtained evidence at trial. Since the Government has not argued that an exception to the exclusionary rule applies in these circumstances, and it is the Government’s burden to do so, the Court concludes that the drugs discovered in Mr. Dominguez-Fernand’s car must be suppressed.

Surprisingly, the government never asked for consideration under the "good faith exception," nor did the court decide to entertain this idea on its own. That this resulted in tossed evidence even with the Heien decision in place suggests law enforcement can still manage to go too far when cooking up bogus reasons to stop drivers.

Filed Under: 4th amendment, search, traffic stop, victor dominguez-fernand


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jun 2016 @ 6:38am

    Re: Re:

    For this "should be a normal occurrence" to be a "story", there would be an attempt to knowingly use evidence obtained outside the law to prosecute a minor traffic offense ...
    Oh wait - that happened.

    Stories have spin, what a startling revelation. Do comments have spin also?

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