3/23/2012Federal Judge Upholds Implausible Traffic Stop
Officer credibility is enough to justify a traffic stop, even if there is evidence that raises a doubt.
A federal jury in Oklahoma last week found Julius Lee Turrentine guilty of cocaine possession. His conviction came about as the result of a traffic stop that raised important issue of whether the mere assertion of a police officer that a violation took place is sufficient to justify the stop.
Turrentine had been driving on the Turner Turnpike between Oklahoma City and Tulsa on the morning of November 23, 2011. Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Painter was parked in his Dodge Charger alongside the Chevy Tahoe of Trooper Owen so that they could chat with one another during their shift. Painter claimed he saw Turrentine's silver GMC Acadia take an exit without using his turn signal. In the course of the stop, drugs were ultimately found.
Turrentine argued through his public defender that the troopers were lying and he did, in fact, use his turn signal. His only hope of escaping his fate was to have the evidence suppressed. Although there is a dashcam video recording of the traffic stop itself, Turrentine's vehicle is out of the frame when he took the exit. The same video does show Turrentine had used his signal properly down the road.
"The government recognizes that the trooper video depicts the defendant signaling a lane change after exiting the toll plaza before being stopped by the trooper, and that the defendant disputed the reason for the stop, however the government still submits the trooper had reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop based on an observed traffic violation prior to the defendant's entry into the toll plaza," US Attorney Sanford C. Coats argued.
Turrentine called an expert witness who claimed to demonstrate that it was impossible for Trooper Painter to see over his partner's large SUV to tell if Turrentine's car had signaled or not. Trooper Painter also had a history of issuing lane change tickets to black motorists.
"While the defendant's evidence might well be sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt as to whether defendant committed the traffic violation, that is not the standard here," US District Judge Joe Heaton ruled. "For present purposes, the question is whether the government has established by a preponderance of the evidence that the violation occurred, hence justifying the trooper's action. The court concludes it has. Trooper Painter testified that he observed the violation and the court found his testimony to be generally credible."
With the traffic stop admitted as evidence, Turrentine's other defenses failed to persuade the jury. He awaits sentencing.
A copy of the court's decision is available in a 35k PDF file at the source link below.