3/18/2013Utah: Court Rules Cops Cannot Extend Traffic Stop
Federal Court finds once a cop returns license to driver, he needs probable cause to continue the traffic stop.
After a police officer hands a driver back his license and registration, the traffic stop cannot continue, a federal court ruled. On Friday, the US District Court for the District of Utah dismissed all charges against Ramon A. Lopez, a man who had been pulled over for having a towel in his window around at around 10:50am on May 9, 2012.
Highway Patrol Trooper John Sheets was told to come up with a pretext for pulling over the car that was being driven by Lopez after receiving a tip from the Drug Enforcement Agency. Trooper Sheets performed the stop, but Lopez did not speak English. His passenger, Janeth Jopez, translated. Trooper Sheets asked for license and registration, which checked out as valid.
Janeth Lopez explained they were traveling to Salt Lake City interested in buying a car. Trooper Sheets did not believe the story. While waiting, a drug dog was brought in to sniff the outside of the car. The dog did not alert. Trooper Sheets returned the license and registration, but he also asked for consent to search the car for drugs. Ramon Lopez looked confused by the question and said "si," though Janeth Lopez did not know what he meant. The trooper took that as consent, though both sides dispute what was said during the conversation, which was not recorded.
Ramon Lopez through his lawyer, Scott C. Williams, challenged the stop as a violation of the Fourth Amendment. He argued the trooper had no justification or consent for a search. The court agreed.
"The court notes that not only was the evidence cited by Trooper Sheets insufficient to establish a reasonable suspicion, but any suspicions that Trooper Sheets may have had should have been dispelled when the dog, Jet, did not indicate the presence of any drugs after Officer Shearer commanded him to search around the outside of the car," Judge Robert J. Shelby ruled.
The ruling on the motion to suppress the evidence turned on whether the trooper obtained voluntary consent for a search. The state must prove by the preponderance of the evidence that the search was voluntary, but the trooper failed to use a department-issued written consent form that includes instructions in Spanish. The judge found nothing remotely voluntary about the encounter.
"Here, Trooper Sheets did not tell Mr. Lopez that he was free to go or otherwise indicate that the stop was finished by disengaging from the communication," Judge Shelby Ruled. "Trooper Sheets testified that he asked the pair if he could ask them further questions, but Ms. Lopez testified that Trooper Sheets immediately began questioning 'in a very accusatory voice' whether there were drugs in the car. In any event, the United States does not deny that Trooper Sheets was leaning into the window, making it unlikely that Mr. Lopez would have assumed that the encounter was over and making it difficult for Mr. Lopez to leave without causing injury to the officer. It is also undisputed that Trooper Sheets told the pair that he did not believe their story, making it unlikely that Mr. Lopez felt he could depart before responding to the Trooper's suspicions.... As a result, the court holds that Mr. Lopez was unlawfully detained after Trooper Sheets returned Mr. Lopez's documents to him."
Because the search was not voluntary and the trooper did not have reasonable suspicion, the judge ruled the evidence of meth possession had to be thrown out. A copy of the ruling is available in a 140k PDF file at the source link below.