Report Shows LA Sheriff's Deputies Engaging In Biased Policing, Performing Tons Of Questionable Traffic Stops

from the so,-you-know,-just-like-lots-of-other-law-enforcement-agencies dept

The LA Times has put together a blockbuster piece showing local law enforcement engaging in some arguably biased policing. Analyzing over 9,000 traffic stops recorded by the LA Sheriff's Department over the last five years, the LA Times noticed some alarming statistics. Latino drivers comprised 69% of the stops and had their vehicles searched two-thirds of the time. Other drivers -- the remaining 31% -- were subjected to searches less than half the time.

Also alarming: most searches were consented to by drivers, suggesting drivers are either unaware of their rights or simply felt pressured into allowing deputies to do what they wanted. It also suggests most stops are fishing expeditions, rather than truly traffic-related, which may put more recent stops on the wrong side of legality, thanks to the Supreme Court's Rodriguez decision. This decision said traffic stops are over when the objective of the stop has been fulfilled -- i.e., the delivery of a citation or warning. Killing time to wait for drug dogs or backup units is no longer permissible if reasonable suspicion has failed to materialize.

The LA County Sheriff's Department likes to brag about the hundreds of kilos of drugs it has seized over the years. But it doesn't have much to say about its apparent targeting of Latino drivers or the fact that these drivers were no more likely to be carrying contraband than races/ethnicities stopped/searched far less frequently.

The whole thing is worth reading, but a couple of details pop out. First, the author of the paper was riding shotgun during what appears to be an illegal traffic stop. Deputies stopped a Mexican man for driving too slow and searched his entire vehicle, including removing part of the dashboard to look for hidden drugs. Nothing appears to have risen to the level of probable cause and the paper's documentation of the stop doesn't include the driver giving his consent to be searched.

The deputies may have had reasonable suspicion to extend the stop, but that's only if you believe a person reacting normally to the presence of several law enforcement officers is inherently suspicious.

The man seemed fidgety and nervous to [Deputy John] Leitelt. With traffic zooming by, the deputy instructed him to get out and walked him to the back of the Volkswagen. Leitelt asked in Spanish whether he was carrying methamphetamine. Heroin? Cocaine? Marijuana? A large amount of cash?

The man repeatedly said no, and his voice and expression remained unchanged — usually a sign, the deputy said later, that someone is being truthful. But Leitelt also thought the man was avoiding eye contact, which he interpreted as an indication of possible deception.

Truthful, but lying. From there, Leitelt discovered a suitcase and searched it, finding normal stuff: clothes and some greeting cards. If you think this may have dissipated the cloud of suspicion, you obviously don't work for the LASD.

Thinking the suitcase could be “a prop,” Leitelt kept going. Using an assortment of prying tools, he and the other deputy popped off a section of the dashboard in search of a hidden compartment traffickers sometimes build.

Luggage is a "prop." Remember that when a government employee says your lack of luggage is suspicious. Stuff you bring with you is suspicious. Stuff you didn't bring with you is suspicious. Your mere existence on a road drug traffickers use is suspicious.

No drugs were found and the driver was free to go. Everyone's time was wasted, along with some tax dollars, because a deputy thought a bunch of normal stuff was "suspicious." The finely-tuned collective instincts of LASD's deputies has resulted in a ton of stops but contraband is found less than 20% of time, according to the LA Times' analysis.

But let's go back to what's claimed to be reasonably suspicious enough to extend a traffic stop past its original intent. Courts are starting to call out cops for claiming anything a driver does during a stop is suspicious, even when one alleged indicator of suspicion is the polar opposite of another indicator stated in another case. Mainly surfacing in drug cases where deputies have managed to find contraband, judges are seemingly a bit less willing to give law enforcement a pass on bad faith assertions.

A suppression motion resulted in some conflicting testimony from Deputy Michael Vann, who received a solid hammering from the suspect's defense attorney.

When the driver, Mario Manjarrez, told Vann he had been visiting family in Los Angeles and pointed toward the city, the deputy saw the gesture as “an anchor point movement,” which he said criminals use to distract officers. In this case, Vann concluded, Manjarrez had been struggling to recall a made-up story about visiting family and pointed toward the city in an attempt to seem more confident.

When the motorist took a step away from the car, the deputy wrote, it was an unconscious attempt at “distancing himself” from what was inside. And the fact that he switched from saying ‘no’ to silently shaking his head when asked if he had methamphetamine or cocaine was reason for Vann to suspect he was carrying the two drugs.

Manjarrez’s lawyer questioned how handing a license over too quickly could be a telltale sign of deception. She noted that Vann claimed in other stops that it was suspicious when drivers were slow and clumsy in handing over their licenses.

And she pointed out that although Vann maintained that Manjarrez’s finger pointing was a sign of a forgotten cover story, the deputy also had said that in other stops he based his suspicions on people who recited their stories too smoothly.

Deputy Vann tried to argue every stop was unique, which was why things that were suspicious in other cases weren't suspicious in this one… or vice versa. The court was not impressed.

U.S. District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez concluded that Vann’s justifications could make any word or movement grounds for suspicion.

“I have doubts about the magical psychological powers of Deputy Vann,” Gutierrez said at a hearing in November. “To me, it’s psychological babble.”

Here's the full version from the linked hearing transcript [PDF], which is even harsher in its assessment of Deputy Vann and his magical law enforcement powers.

The issue becomes -- so he says it -- and I believe the parties mention this. At least six times he says "based on my training and experience." And the other incidents -- for example, if he says, based on my training and experience, the defendant looking up means nervousness or whatever. I'm just giving examples. Then in some other prior instances, based on my training and experience, looking down means nervousness. And then in other cases he says based on my experience looking straight at me is nervousness.

That bears on whether or not the Court should give credibility to his, quote, "training and experience" that it's -- in this particular case. The same applies to "He gave me the license quickly. That means he wants to shorten the stop."

In the other case, "He fumbled and gave it to me, and that gives me some other fact that gives me reasonable suspicion to suspect criminal activity." Or he points in a certain direction in this case which means something and pointing in another case means something else.

And I don't think it's any surprise because I've never seen any testimony like Deputy Vann's before. I mean, to me, as I said before, it's psychological babble. And from my perspective, even without these other instances, I think the government is going to be hard-pressed for me to give credibility to Deputy Vann not only for the psychological babble, because you can turn any stop -- Deputy Vann is adept, I guess. He could turn any stop into a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.

But the other clincher for me was his attitude. He has a bad attitude. He had a bad attitude in this court. He was disrespectful. He was short. The public defender was just asking him questions. He didn't need to be disrespectful. The public defender was just doing his job. But he decided he was going to take charge of the cross-examination which he did but it reflected on his credibility as being straightforward.

Perhaps hoping to avoid an adverse precedential ruling covering pretextual stops, prosecutors dismissed charges before a ruling on the suppression motion was handed down.

What's detailed in this excellent report is troubling. The LASD says it doesn't engage in biased enforcement but the stats say otherwise. Deputies may honestly believe they're not singling out Latinos, but somehow that's still who's getting pulled over the most. On top of that, they're far more likely to have their vehicles searched. And from what was observed by the LA Times, deputies don't seem all that concerned about the Constitutionality of the searches they perform. Further, their testimony in court indicates they believe everything is "suspicious." And when everything is suspicious, it's pretty easy to extend stops past their purpose.

Targeting drivers who might not be familiar with their rights or speak English well just greases the wheels for invasive searches. And even with all of this going for them, deputies only find contraband 20% of the time. This doesn't mean 80% of vehicle searches performed by deputies are unconstitutional, but it does mean a not-insignificant percentage of them very likely are.

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Filed Under: 4th amendment, biased policing, la, la sheriffs department, lasd, traffic stops


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  1. icon
    lucidrenegade (profile), 12 Oct 2018 @ 6:20pm

    Re: SAY, speak of SUSPICIOUS! It's a CRIMINAL CASE, # CR 16-850 PSG

    You said you were leaving. Why are you still here?

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