Cop To Court: This Normal Behavior I Literally Observe All The Time Is Suspicious Behavior Justifying A Traffic Stop
from the this-is-a-routine-occurrence...-possibly-TOO-routine dept
In which the government argues that avowedly suspicionless behavior is reasonable suspicion.
Carlos Velazquez was pulled over by Officer Ken Scott, a "traffic investigator" patrolling the Ft. Bragg military base in North Carolina. Scott observed Velasquez make a right-hand turn at a stop sign, then reverse course when he encountered a gate preventing traffic from entering the Ft. Bragg Special Operations Compound. The stop resulted in the search of the vehicle and, eventually, the discovery of illegal drugs.
Velazquez moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the stop was suspicionless. The government disagreed, but Scott's own testimony indicates it was a suspicionless stop. Scott claimed the stop was justified because he believed Velazquez was "intoxicated or lost." That last part Scott himself ignored, even during his testimony as the government's sole witness. The actions Scott viewed as "suspicious" during his justification of the traffic stop were also actions Scott had witnessed numerous times while patrolling the area around the military base.
Lamont Road ends at an intersection with Manchester Road. At the time of this incident, if a driver turned right from Lamont onto Manchester, he would encounter a closed gate with a "Do Not Enter" sign. Id. at 1:09:20-1:09:30. If a driver turned left from Lamont onto Manchester, the road would take him towards various training areas and, ultimately, the town of Southern Pines. Id. at 1:10:20-1:10:29.
Officer Scott described this area as wooded with no lighting with minimal, if any, phone and radio signals. Id. at 1:10:39-1:10:49. Officer Scott also stated that there are no individuals in that area at night. Id. at 1:11:16-1:11:22. Officer Scott also testified that he has often assisted individuals who were lost in the area, including those following GPS. Id. at 1:12:17-1:12:36. Officer Scott stated that he had often received calls of lost individuals utilizing GPS where the GPS would take them off the main road. Id.; id. at 1:17:01-1:17:15. He also stated that there are no phone signals and radios often do not operate in this remote area. Id. at 1:10:50-1:10:55.
Officer Scott did not provide any details on how many suspicionless stops he has performed after viewing behavior he admittedly finds unsuspicious. There's also nothing in the decision that indicates Scott observed anything about Velazquez's behavior during the stop that would have added to his suspicions. Instead, as the court points out, everything Velazquez did was entirely normal, given what Officer Scott had observed during previous patrols.
Here, the evidence demonstrates that Velasquez was driving on a public road shortly after midnight on a Saturday morning. When he reached an intersection, he stopped completely and proceeded to make a right turn. After encountering a fence informing him he was not allowed to proceed further, Velasquez turned his vehicle around and proceeded down a public, albeit remote, road. At no time did Officer Scott observe any erratic driving, traffic violations, or other conduct that indicated Velasquez was intoxicated. There is no indication that there were concerns that Velasquez posed a threat to the physical security of the base or personnel or that he was seeking unauthorized access to the Special Operations Compound. Officer Scott's decision to pull Velasquez over appears to have been based entirely on his presence on a public road at night and his right turn at the intersection of Lamont and Manchester Roads. Given that Officer Scott was aware that individuals frequently became lost in this area and that GPS systems would often cause individuals to make wrong turns, these facts are insufficient to establish that Officer Scott's stop of Velazquez's vehicle was supported by reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct.
No one likes to lose a drug bust, but offering up an argument that basically amounts to "the lack of suspicious behavior made me suspicious" is even worse than the government's routine insistence that driving from state to state on paved highways is suspicious because criminals often travel from state to state on paved highways.
While officers are generally free to make up their own traffic laws to initiate suspicionless stops, the officer here apparently failed to come up with anything better than "possibly [and suspiciously] lost" after interacting with Velazquez. The officer lucked into a drug bust, but "fortuitous discovery" isn't a recognized Fourth Amendment exception (or, at least, it shouldn't be one -- see also: "good faith").
There are few activities that separate citizens from their Fourth Amendment rights faster than driving but, at least in this decision, the rights didn't evaporate quite as quickly as Officer Scott may have hoped. Away goes the evidence. With that dismissed during oral arguments, the government decided there was nothing left to prosecute, so the charges have been dropped as well.
When Dirty Harry acolytes bitch about "technicalities" putting drug dealers back on the streets, these are the sorts of things they're often unknowingly referring to: law enforcement's inability to stay within the confines of the law and the Constitution.