5/28/2012Texas Appeals Court Upholds Illegal Traffic Stop
Texas appellate court admits traffic stop over clear tail lights illegal, but sides with police anyway.
The second highest court in Texas on Wednesday signaled support for police who make up phony reasons to pull over motorists. A sharply divided Court of Criminal Appeals declined to sanction officers for pulling over Alvaro Mazuca because his yellow Mustang had "defective tail lights." The Mustang's lights were just fine.
On December 11, 2008 at around 10pm, El Paso Police Officers Mike Chavez and Christopher Grijalva were out looking for people to ticket at the Sunland Park Mall when the brightly colored Ford caught their eye. They performed a traffic stop in the parking lot of Linens n Things, admitting they had no suspicion that the driver had committed any crime. It turned out that Mazuca had drugs on him along with an outstanding arrest warrant, but his lawyer moved to suppress the evidence because the initial stop was bogus.
Mazuca had installed a modified set of clear tail lights on his vehicle five years ago. Although the lenses were clear, its bulbs were red and could only emit a red light. The setup had always passed the yearly state safety inspection, but Officer Grijalva insisted they did not appear red when the brake pedal was pushed.
"There was mostly white," Grijalva testified. "From what I distinctly saw it was mostly white. I don't recall if we got close and saw that there was any red. But the white dominated the red color."
The trial judge found the police officers' version of events was "not credible" and that the stop was flagrantly illegal. Prosecutors immediately appealed to the Court of Appeals, which upheld the lower court finding. A three-judge panel reasoned that if it sanctioned the arrest, police would be encouraged to go on fishing expeditions, stopping drivers randomly on the hunt for people with warrants.
The next highest court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, had a different view. On Wednesday, the majority ruled that the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule should not apply, citing the "attenuation of taint" doctrine that makes illegally obtained evidence admissible if that evidence is not closely connected with the illegal methods used.
"In the present case, we conclude that the temporal proximity between the first illegal arrest and the second legal arrest does not bear on the attenuation," Judge Tom Price wrote for the majority in the 5-4 decision. "This factor has been cited and considered exclusively in cases where confessions or statements were obtained from a suspect subsequent to an illegal arrest. We also reason that, unlike the confession cases, where the statements can be seen as a psychological product of the arrest, the diminution of the likelihood of the discovery of physical evidence as a result of the illegal arrest cannot be a function of the passage of time. Thus, we conclude that the temporal proximity factor is of no moment in this case."
Four of the nine judges sided with the earlier rulings.
"The result fashioned by the majority opens the door for police to ignore the probable cause requirement and make traffic stops without adequate grounds for doing so," Judge Lawrence E. Meyers wrote in a dissent. "The majority's analysis of the weight of the Brown factors may be correct, but the result discounts the trial court's findings as to the credibility of the officers."
Judge Cheryl Johnson blasted her colleagues for taking lightly the seriousness of the police misconduct here.
"Ignorance of the law is no defense," Johnson wrote. "We have all heard that statement many times, usually in the context of a defendant who claims not to have known of the law he or she is charged with violating. If an average citizen cannot plead ignorance of the law, how are we to condone a law-enforcement officer, who is charged with knowing the law he or she enforces, using that excuse to justify a traffic stop that is blatantly improper?"
A copy of the decision is available in a 600k PDF file at the source link below.