Court To Cops: Residing In A State Where Marijuana Is Legal Does Not Automatically Make A Motorist 'Suspicious'
from the half-a-nation,-under-suspicion dept
Colorado legislators legalized recreational marijuana use and now law enforcement agencies in bordering states are camping out on highways hoping for easy busts. All roads in and out of the state are now "drug corridors." This has led to suspicionless stops and seizures by police officers -- predicated on nothing more than a vehicle being on a strip of highway leading to or from a supposed "source" state.
Not every bust goes as easily as officers might have hoped. Nebraska deputies tried to make drug conspiracy charges stick to a pair of Minnesotans arrested while on their way to Colorado with more than $60,000 in cash. The conviction didn't stick because it isn't against the law to conspire to perform an act that is legal in another state. It's illegal to buy or sell marijuana in both Minnesota and Nebraska, but not in Colorado, where the two were headed. The charges went away but the $60,000 in cash is likely going to remain in Nebraska law enforcement's possession.
Another traffic stop in another Midwestern state has been ruled unconstitutional, partially because Kansas law enforcement officers believed the driver being a resident of marijuana-friendly Colorado was pretty much all the reasonable suspicion they'd need to perform a search.
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals -- in stripping away the immunity granted to two Kansas Highway Patrol officers by the lower court -- points out the many flaws in the officers' reasoning. [PDF link]
Peter Vasquez was pulled over because his temporary tag was unreadable. Once the temporary tag had been verified as legitimate, he should have been free to go. Instead, it was merely the start of a fishing expedition by the officers, who hoped to find the Colorado resident in possession of an illegal substance.
In the car, [Officer] Jimerson told [Officer] Lewis that Vasquez was notably nervous and that there were items covered in the front and back seat of the car. Jimerson sent Lewis to check on Vasquez, to “see how nervous he [was]” and to “get a feel for him.” Upon returning, Lewis told Jimerson that Vasquez “look[ed] all scared to death.” Jimerson then checked Vasquez’s proof of insurance which indicated Vasquez also had insurance for two newer cars. Jimerson, suspecting Vasquez was transporting illegal drugs, called Trooper Jason Edie to bring a trained drug dog.
Lewis returned to Vasquez and asked where he worked. Vasquez responded “We own a store called Boutiques at Brighton.” Lewis also asked why Vasquez was not driving one of the newer cars listed on his proof of insurance. Vasquez stated that he bought the newest car for his girlfriend. Further, Vasquez told Lewis that he was moving to Maryland, which prompted Lewis to ask “Where’s all the stuff if you’re moving?” Vasquez replied that he already had moved most of his belongings.
Lewis issued Vasquez a warning… and then decided to keep pushing Vasquez to give the officers consent to search the vehicle. Vasquez refused. Officer Lewis apparently felt refusing a search was something only guilty people do.
After the refusal, Lewis said that he suspected Vasquez was “probably involved in a little criminal activity here” and detained him.
The drug dog sniffed the vehicle without alerting. Nothing illegal was discovered during the officers' subsequent search of the car. Vasquez sued the officers for their illegal search. The officers delivering this list of "suspicious" behavior in defense of their actions.
They argue the following factors created reasonable suspicion: (1) Vasquez was driving alone late at night; (2) he was travelling on I-70, “a known drug corridor”; (3) he was from Colorado and was driving from Aurora, Colorado, “a drug source area”; (4) the back seat did not contain items the Officers expected to see in the car of someone moving across the country; (5) the items in his back seat were covered and obscured from view; (6) he had a blanket and pillow in his car; (7) he was driving an older car, despite having insurance for a newer one; (8) there were fresh fingerprints on his trunk; and (9) he seemed nervous.
The Appeals Court is unimpressed with the officers' "reasonable suspicion" Frankenstein's monster.
Such conduct, taken together, is hardly suspicious, nor is it particularly unusual.
Neither the dissent nor the Officers explain how these factors, taken together, indicate suspicious behavior. The Officers instead recite them as a list of unrelated facts… [O]fficers must explain why the factors considered together are suspicious, and not simply recite isolated factors, leaving it to the courts to glean how they create reasonable suspicion.
Other attempts by the officers to salvage their illegal search are met with similar disbelief by the court.
The Officers also argue that Vasquez gave vague or inconsistent answers to questions about his travel plans. However, the Officers do not explain what these answers were or why they were contradictory. On reviewing the record, which contains a video recording of the interactions between the Officers and Vasquez, we cannot find anything even arguably inconsistent in Vasquez’s answers.
But it's the officers' insistence that Vasquez's status as a resident of Colorado somehow matters that ires the court most -- as if simply living in a supposed "drug source state" were enough to justify not only a stop, but a search as well. The court not only smacks down these two officers, but every lazy, presumptuous law enforcement officer who would use similarly faulty reasoning to justify detaining motorists.
As we have said previously, “that the defendant [was] traveling from a drug source city—or . . . a drug source state—does little to add to the overall calculus of suspicion.” Such a factor is “so broad as to be indicative of almost nothing.” Moreover, our fellow circuits have concluded the state of residence of a detained motorist is an “extremely weak factor, at best” in the reasonable suspicion calculus because “interstate motorists have a better than equal chance of traveling from a source state to a demand state.”
See also: this post. The appeals court goes on to show what this "source state" garbage means in practice.
Currently, twenty-five states permit marijuana use for medical purposes, with Colorado, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, and Washington, D.C. permitting some recreational use under state law. Thus, the Officer’s reasoning would justify the search and seizure of the citizens of more than half of the states in our country. It is wholly improper to assume that an individual is more likely to be engaged in criminal conduct because of his state of residence, and thus any fact that would inculpate every resident of a state cannot support reasonable suspicion. Accordingly, it is time to abandon the pretense that state citizenship is a permissible basis upon which to justify the detention and search of out-of-state motorists, and time to stop the practice of detention of motorists for nothing more than an out-of-state license plate.
The court makes an excellent point. The "you ain't from around here" theory of policing hasn't gone away. Agencies focused on drug interdiction and/or forfeiture have declared pretty much every major interstate highway to be a drug corridor. The appeals court points out that it would have been equally suspicious for Vasquez not to have been utilizing I-70 to travel from Colorado for Maryland. There's just no way to win, not when so many traffic stops have so little to do with the violations (real or imagined) officers cite before getting down to the real business of seeking consent for vehicle searches.