12/21/2010Federal Appeals Court Upholds Car Search in the Name of Terrorism Prevention
Federal court cites terrorism as legitimate reason to search an occupied vehicle in a parking lot.
Law enforcement may search any occupied vehicle merely by citing terrorism concerns, a three-judge federal appellate panel ruled Friday. The US Court of Appeals for the First District found that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) had not violated the rights of Edgar Ramos when his van was searched in the parking lot of the Sullivan Square Station in Charlestown on May 28, 2004 at 6:50am.
That day, MBTA security guard Patricia Pitts could see two individuals in a white passenger van in the back of the lot which contained about 200 vehicles. Pitts attended a one-day seminar that suggested that vehicles with occupants inside were potential terrorist threats. She then saw several men exit the van, one of whom wrote something on a piece of paper.
"Her terrorism training seminar had taught her that people writing notes at MBTA stations could be planning where to plant explosives," Chief Judge Sandra L. Lynch explained in her decision.
After the men stretched their legs, they returned to the van. This was also a sign of terrorism to Pitts, who drove past the van and noted it had a paper license plate and tinted windows -- signs of terrorism. Pitts also believed the dark-skinned males to be Middle Eastern, the final sign of terrorism. Pitts called in the MBTA police who approached the van in "tactical form."
MBTA Officers O'Hara and Silen ordered the driver, Edgar Ramos, and the front-seat passenger out of the van. The officers then opened the rear doors and ordered all the occupants to get out. Ramos produced a Texas driver's license, but the other men had Brazilian passports with entry stamps for Mexico, but not the United States. Immigration officials determined they were in the country illegally. Ramos appealed his conviction, asking the three-judge panel to rule on whether the initial search was lawful. Citing the 2004 public transit bombings in Madrid, the court found the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
"We note as a preliminary matter that the nature of the intrusion in opening the front passenger door was minimal," Lynch wrote. "Within this broad context, it was appropriate for the police to take into account the location of the suspicious conduct and the degree of the potential danger being investigated... There is nothing on the particular facts of this case to forbid the officers' consideration of the information that at least two of the van's occupants 'appeared' to be Middle Eastern... This is not a case in which the only basis for suspicion was Ramos' appearance. Under the totality of circumstances, the officers had reasonable suspicion criminal activity was afoot."
The court upheld the finding that Ramos was guilty of transporting illegal aliens. A copy of the ruling is available in a 75k PDF file at the source link below.