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US Appeals Court Overturns Conviction Based on a Lie
Federal appeals court rules conviction based on self-contradictory police testimony must be reversed.

Raymond W. Gruender
The US Court of Appeal for the Eighth Circuit on Monday overturned the sentence of a man convicted based on questionable testimony about a traffic stop. Despite clear evidence that a police officer contradicted himself regarding the reason he pulled over Ronald Prokupek on February 29, 2008, a magistrate in Nebraska and a federal district court judge found still found him guilty. The three-judge appellate panel strongly disagreed, noting the rarity of the situation where it was forced to declare the lower court judges guilty of "clear error" in their decisions.

Prokupek's troubles began when the Nebraska State Patrol set up a fake drug roadblock off Interstate 80 in Seward County. The idea was to set up a sting at an exit ramp before the checkpoint and pull over anyone trying to avoid being detained and searched. Trooper James Estwick ordered Prokupek to stop, and his explanation was preserved on a dashcam recording.

"The reason you got pulled over is because when you exited the interstate you didn't signal -- you didn't signal your exit," Trooper Estwick said. "You signaled your turn, but you didn't signal -- exit --signal when you were getting on the exit."

At trial, Estwick testified that he stopped Prokupek "for failing to signal." When asked to clarify by the defense attorney, the trooper's story changed.

"I don't understand what your question is -- I really don't," Estwick said. "He failed to signal his northbound turn onto the roadway... I couldn't see [Prokupek] when he left the interstate... I didn't see him leave the interstate, sir."

Despite the testimony that Estwick could not have seen the signal or lack of signal from his position on the road, the magistrate accepted as credible Estwick's testimony that no signal was made for the turn from the exit ramp to the county road. A district court judge agreed that one of two signals must not have been performed. The appellate judges on December 10 ordered the district court to clarify its ruling. The lower court judge responded that the statements caught on tape were an "unintentional misstatement," and the appeals court slammed this reasoning.

"We can find no evidence in the record that supports this finding, aside from the bare fact that Trooper Estwick contradicted the statement at the suppression hearing," Judge Raymond W. Gruender wrote for the appellate panel. "Although defense counsel pressed Trooper Estwick on the inconsistency during cross-examination, Trooper Estwick offered no explanation for the inconsistency, nor did he testify that his contemporaneous statement was a misstatement. In the absence of any evidence in the record to support the district court's conclusion that Trooper Estwick misspoke at the time of the arrest, we conclude that this finding is clearly erroneous."

While stopped, a drug dog had been brought over to sniff Prokupek's vehicle. It found 151 grams of methamphetamine. The appellate court suppressed the results of this search because they were based upon an unlawful traffic stop. Prokupek's conviction will be overturned as a result.

A copy of the decision is available in a 25k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File US v. Prokupek (US Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit, 1/24/2011)

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