Judge Benchslaps Cops And Courts For Turning Law Enforcement Lies Into 'Objectively Reasonable' Mistakes

from the probable-cause-of-one's-own dept

It's always fun to read a good benchslap of cops who've tried to turn nothing at all into "probable cause." It doesn't happen very often because courts are far too obliging far too often. The standard law enforcement officers are held to -- objective reasonableness -- rarely seems reasonable, no matter how objectively you approach it.

This ruling [PDF] by a Florida federal court does not coddle the officer who made a mockery of both objective reasonableness and probable cause. You can tell this is headed into unconstitutional territory during the recounting of the events that led to the arrest of Jorge Sanchez. (via FourthAmendment.com)

Local officers were working with the DEA on a drug trafficking investigation. They decided to pull over someone heading away from the house they were surveilling. But the officers had nothing approaching probable cause. All they had was someone driving away from a house they suspected might be tied to drug sales. But that wasn't going to stop them from stopping Sanchez. So, they did what they had to do.

Deputy Steuerwald asked Sgt. Beuer to “develop his own probable cause and conduct a traffic stop on the car.”

This would be a lot more shocking if it wasn't nearly pretty much every pretextual stop ever. You can't fish unless you have someone else's (drivers) license in your hand, so any real or imagined traffic violation will do. Only this one was so imaginary the court's not having any of it.

Sgt. Beuer did so—or at least he thought he did (more on this later)—and pulled Sanchez over for violating the Florida “stop bar” statute.

The "more on this later" is the best part of the suppression order. The bogus stop led to a search of the vehicle and the arrest of Sanchez. None of that matters any more because Sgt. Beuer was objectively awful at creating probable cause.

The state's stop bar statute says this:

[E]very driver of a vehicle approaching a stop intersection indicated by a stop sign shall stop at a clearly marked stop line, but if none, before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection or, if none, then at the point nearest the intersecting roadway where the driver has a view of approaching traffic on the intersecting roadway before entering the intersection.

And here's what Sgt. Beuer testified Sanchez had done:

At the hearing, Sgt. Beuer identified this intersection and confirmed that Sanchez brought his vehicle to a complete stop at a position in relation to the stop sign as depicted in this photo.

There's no stop bar on the road and the vehicle is stopped "where the driver has a view of approaching traffic."

The government said Sgt. Beuer's lie was reasonable enough to generate probable cause for a stop. The court disagrees, using evidence Beuer agreed was true, as well as his own testimony about the stop.

While generally familiar with stop bars, and believing them to be fairly ubiquitous, Sgt. Beuer acknowledged he was not overly familiar with this area of Rockledge, Florida. (Doc. 30.) But Sgt. Beuer had walked back and forth on Skelly Drive at or near the intersection with Florida Avenue, so he had an opportunity to view the road surface condition and the general “lay of the land,” both in his vehicle and on foot.

Looking at the photographic evidence, which Sgt. Beuer accepts as properly depicting the scene (Doc. 31-5; Doc. 32-8, p. 8), it is difficult to imagine how a motorist might, at this particularly odd intersection, have any ability to see oncoming traffic from the left if stopped anywhere short of the point where Sgt. Beuer concedes Sanchez stopped his vehicle on this night. An added stop bar would have made the situation worse from a safety perspective.

This isn't even subjectively reasonable, says the court.

In short, it was not objectively reasonable for Sgt. Beuer to believe that Sanchez violated Florida Statute § 316.123 by failing to stop at a stop bar that not only was not there, but where there was nothing about this intersection to suggest it would be there—quite the contrary. When you add the fact that Sgt. Beuer actually traversed the area on foot, the reasonableness of his predication is further undermined.

Now, here's where the order gets really good. The court not only slaps the government, but judges who are far too willing to overlook blatant Constitutional violations by law enforcement officers because it's presumably too difficult to do police work and respect rights at the same time.

If these facts qualify as “objectively reasonable”, then the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure is simply not applicable to a pretextual traffic stop. The Court should stop imbuing the “objectively reasonable” officer with a cloak of constitutional comfort for justifications that strain credulity and discount the facts out of deference to their necessary “game time decisions”. See Chanthasouxat, 342 F.3d at 1276. While deference is a necessary component of the analysis, it does not warrant a rubber stamp. The Fourth Amendment still has some teeth in a traffic stop.

Courts are supposed to act as a bulwark against government overreach, not as an enabler of unconstitutional behavior. But qualified immunity, the good faith exception, and other defenses cops can raise when accused of illegal behavior -- defenses that aren't available to citizens -- have turned the courts into an entity that rarely allows for the actual redress of grievances.

Filed Under: benchslap, dea, florida, law enforcement, objectively reasonable, police, probable cause


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • identicon
    Daydream, 2 Apr 2020 @ 4:26pm

    I'm curious, just how much methamphetamine did they find in the car? Just a small baggie containing the minimum 50 grams required for an class A felony, or great big boxes of it all through the back seat?

    I want to know before I snark about 'of course the officers on a drug investigation found a small easily-pocketed baggie of drugs in the car they stopped on a flimsy pretext'.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 2 Apr 2020 @ 4:39pm

      The document says Sanchez was booked on possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of meth. So they found at least 50 grams, however much that amounts to in terms of baggies or whatever.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Norahc (profile), 2 Apr 2020 @ 5:36pm

      Re:

      I want to know before I snark about 'of course the officers on a drug investigation found a small easily-pocketed baggie of drugs in the car they stopped on a flimsy pretext'.

      Doesn't matter if he had one baggie or a semi-truck load. Unconstitutional is unconstitutional, no matter how much drugs were found.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Kitsune106, 2 Apr 2020 @ 5:42pm

        Re: Re:

        if we don't give rights to the accused, how can we give to the innocent?

        also, if the police have nothign to hide, then can show us the full truth!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 6 Apr 2020 @ 3:00am

        Re: Re:

        "Doesn't matter if he had one baggie or a semi-truck load. Unconstitutional is unconstitutional, no matter how much drugs were found."

        Well, there is, in fact, a world of difference between "The cops were too inept to do their own job" and "The cops deliberately framed someone"

        Given the sheer number of times US cops have been found planting evidence - on bodycam. no less - what should have been dystopian paranoia is lamentably proven to be a common state of affairs.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Christenson, 2 Apr 2020 @ 8:46pm

      Re: snark away

      We've already thought the snark, might as well go for funnyest post of the week!

      And, if you have officers willing to lie about what was recorded on camera, how are you to believe one word they say? OF COURSE they found drugs when they went looking!

      50 grams of meth is just two ounces; that is just a handful of capsules.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Upstream (profile), 2 Apr 2020 @ 5:20pm

    This is some good stuff! It is so refreshing when a court gets it right. But this also caught my eye:

    Local officers were working with the DEA . . .

    Radley Balko has some good info about some of the problems with this whole concept here.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 2 Apr 2020 @ 6:38pm

    'Yes, Clones-on-Demand? Got a large order...'

    If these facts qualify as “objectively reasonable”, then the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure is simply not applicable to a pretextual traffic stop. The Court should stop imbuing the “objectively reasonable” officer with a cloak of constitutional comfort for justifications that strain credulity and discount the facts out of deference to their necessary “game time decisions”. See Chanthasouxat, 342 F.3d at 1276. While deference is a necessary component of the analysis, it does not warrant a rubber stamp. The Fourth Amendment still has some teeth in a traffic stop.

    I can but wish that this was the default position for every judge out there, rather than a noteworthy outlier. It should not take a judge to point out that constitutional rights are a thing and that they don't take a back seat just because the one violating them has a badge.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      AnonyCog, 3 Apr 2020 @ 2:02am

      Re: 'Yes, Clones-on-Demand? Got a large order...'

      I'll believe it when the cop goes to prison on the crimes they have committed otherwise this is all just the judicial version of self preening.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 3 Apr 2020 @ 5:08am

        It's not good, but it's better than the current terrible

        That would certainly be a good result(personally I'm of the opinion that police should face double the penalty, whether fine or jail time, that the person who's rights they violated would have faced), but sadly at this point any steps towards penalizing them for violating people's rights are an improvement, even if that's only losing a case.

        One can hope that gradually more judges will stop falling over themselves any time they see a badge and start handing out increasingly serious penalties for rights violations by the police, but until then benchslaps and tossed cases will have to do as they are notable improvements over the usual.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          sp5mrwnbtr, 3 Apr 2020 @ 7:43am

          Re: It's not good, but it's better than the current terrible

          "One can hope that gradually more judges will stop falling over themselves any time they see a badge"

          I suppose one can hope, but the evidence is not promising.

          This was an exceptional court decision of "paper bites dog" reported by an exceptional reporter on Techdirt. For every rare case like this of a a court actually criticizing police misconduct, I see hundreds of cases where judges rubber stamp warrants, make excuses for police and prosecutors corruption with an eye towards their next election.

          The contradiction of the American legal system is that judges are elected (which was not always the case) to protect a Constitution designed to protect the rights of the minority, but no one ever got elected by taking the side of the minority over the majority. With the American people largely unconcerned with judges enforcing the Constitution unless and until it is directly applies to them, their survival in office depends far more on pleasing police unions and showing the voters they are tough on crime and support "the good guys" regardless of how they behave.

          For his part, real journalists like Tim Cushing are a decided minority you can mostly count in one hand in a field dominated by journalists who act as the PR arm for law enforcement. I mean, a story like this should be a national scandal, but how many reporters, even in the geographical area where this occurred will cover stories like this at all? What do they have to gain by jeopardizing their cozy relationship with the police and all powerful prosecutors office they depend for access to information involving crime, often provided and written for them by the well funded at tax payer expense PR arm for the police and prosecutor's office?

          We regularly get journalist puff pieces about cops saving vulnerable kittens from trees and we keep reelecting Sheriffs, DAs and judges who have shown a clear pattern of either being involved in, or covering up for systemic Constitutional violations by law enforcement. Who is really to blame for the increasingly corrupt kleptocracy law enforcement has become? Voters like you and I.

          The internet is wonderful because it allows disparate individuals to connect over minority opinions, but it also creates the illusion of a majority where none exists. I can point you to a single pro police blog that has 10 times the members of all the blogs and articles reporting police corruption and misconduct combined and it's not for lack of material to write about.

          Every day the police show us that they see us as the enemy and we continue to pretend they are our friends.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 3 Apr 2020 @ 8:44am

          Re: It's not good, but it's better than the current terrible

          I'm of the opinion that police should face double the penalty, whether fine or jail time, that the person who's rights they violated would have faced

          I can't say I share the opinion. A cop stops someone on a pretext, violates their fourth amendment rights by an illegal search. I don't believe that the cop's punishment should be predicated on what the cop found: the offense (the search) is the same regardless of whether the cop found a baggie with a handful of advil or a severed human head.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            That One Guy (profile), 3 Apr 2020 @ 9:33am

            'Possession is five years, you planted it so ten years for you.'

            It's based upon that because it's meant to scale to what the accused would have faced. If a defendant would have spent several years in jail thanks to having their rights violated then the 'crime' is worse than if they would have 'only' been hit with a fine, and as such the penalty should be higher. In this way you flip the incentive for cops to try to find/'find' as many things as they can to pile on charges to make a bigger 'score', because the more they stack on the bigger penalty they would potentially face.

            Having a base penalty for abuse of rights that that extra penalty would be added to such that any violation would carry a penalty would be good as well though, and for that I would start with paying back say 150% of the defendant's legal fees out of the officer's own pockets(so no dumping it all on the taxpayers).

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 6 Apr 2020 @ 3:04am

            Re: Re: It's not good, but it's better than the current terrible

            "...the offense (the search) is the same regardless of whether the cop found a baggie with a handful of advil or a severed human head."

            That One Guy has a point - if the cop bungled a case whether through ineptitude, lying, or outright planting evidence, then the result of the unconstitutional search and arrest could vary from a small fine to ending up on death row.

            Classic law retains the principle of proportionality. If the cop screws up - deliberately or not - so bad a man is wrongly charged for a crime then the penalties for screwing up must be proportionate to the likely injury done to the wrongfully accused.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Dari (profile), 3 Apr 2020 @ 5:12am

    "While generally familiar with stop bars, and believing
    This isn't even subjectively reasonable, says the court."

    This is the real disappointment. What's the point of spending all our tax money on the largest and most militarized police force in the world if we can't even train them to effectively lie under oath in a credible fashion? It's not enough to provide them with a Bill of Rights so they know what to ignore if we are unwilling to provide the training needed to ignore our rights in a credible manner.

    One could argue it was his inexperience that made him too green to convincingly under oath, but the solution there is to ensure he always has a cute police dog with him to provide cover for unreasonable violations of the 4th amendment with impunity until he has mastered the art of "protecting and serving" on his own.

    To their credit, I doubt would see this type of amateur our in places like New York, LA or Seattle. There they put in the hard work to train new officers to credibly plant evidence and lie under oath in a way the court can support without the risk of public embarrassment. The judiciary can do their part to excuse routine police misconduct, but the police need to step up and do their part to make it, at least on the surface, credible.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 3 Apr 2020 @ 8:35am

      Re:

      The sad thing is they don't really need to put the effort into believable lies, because most of the time all that matters is that the one talking has a badge and that's enough for the judge, with no need to dig any deeper.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Apr 2020 @ 10:38am

      Re:

      NYPD will just scream "he's black!" and shoot you in the back from 300 foot away.

      Chicago PD just disappear you into Homan Square, where you're tortured, burned, electrocuted, fingernails pulled out and if it even SMELLS like you might sue, it's bullet to the head and incineration time.

      The US isn't a democracy by a long stretch. Whole states and cities are Oligarchies controlled by "those above", and laws don't apply to cops and government employees at all.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        ROGS, 5 Apr 2020 @ 2:20pm

        laws don't apply to cops and government employees at all

        Public sector unions have made a mockery of what unions are supposed to be. California enshrined "anonymity" into their laws to protect these modern state-gangs.

        Follow the money, all the corruption leads there.

        Public unionists are antithetical to the unions envisioned by others, but they exist at a level where the term "union" is itself co-opted by state agents.

        These combine forces against the individual, the entrepreneur, the dissenter, and the activist to totally destroy opposition to their life sucking existence.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 3 Apr 2020 @ 11:29am

    Strange thing to understand.

    Can cops do anymore then stop traffic problems?

    What would it take for a person with a REAL complaint against a company of corp, to grab a cop and demand an arrest.?
    Cant do that.

    How many states still have citizens arrest? As well as express this to the citizens, and Tell them how it has to be done?

    Can we use police to do jobs we cant? nope.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Close

Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it
Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.