5/29/2013Kentucky Supreme Court Rejects Consensual Traffic Stop Chats
Kentucky Supreme Court rules chats at the end of a traffic stop are never really voluntary.
Conversations with police at the conclusion of a traffic stop are presumed to be involuntary, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled last week. The justices were in full agreement that the evidence against motorist Stewart M. Turley had to be thrown out because Kentucky State Trooper Jerry Knight had no right to question passengers during the stop, contrary to the state's insistence that the chat was "consensual."
While running a speed trap in Muhlenberg County, Trooper Knight claimed he saw Turley in a Ford F-150 extended cab that had an "improperly illuminated" license plate. Turley was ordered out of the pickup and forced to perform field sobriety tests, which he easily passed. Trooper Knight returned Turley's license and registration, telling him to "have a good night." Turley got back in the pickup. Trooper Knight then began interrogating his two passengers.
"I just wanted to see who they were, make sure they are not any wanted person," Knight testified.
The trooper testified that had Turley driven away at this point, he would have "definitely" chased and arrested him. As Justice Daniel J. Venters described the situation, Turley was "a captive of the vehicle he was operating because it was occupied by the detained passengers."
During the questioning, Trooper Knight noticed a wooden box inside the cab. He repeatedly demanded to see what was inside. The passenger said he did not know what it contained, and finally agreed to look inside. When he opened the lid, Trooper Knight grabbed the box out of "officer safety" and a small bag of marijuana fell to the floor. Turley was arrested and the truck thoroughly searched, revealing methamphetamine and $3900 in cash. Turley was sentenced to twenty years, which he is currently serving at the Green River Correctional Complex.
At trial, Muhlenberg Circuit Court Judge Brian Wiggins refused to suppress the evidence gathered as a result of the conversation with the passenger, ruling it was a "consensual encounter." The high court went out of its way to blast Judge Wiggins for getting both the law and the facts wrong.
"The trial court's incomplete findings are arbitrary, clearly erroneous in their overall effect, and directly contradicted by the evidence viewed in its entirety," Justice Venters wrote for the court.
Trooper Knight's testimony that the appellant was never free to leave left no ground for the trial court's conclusion. Moreover, the high court pointed out that Trooper Knight was interrogating the passengers, so Turley could not have consented to someone else's questioning. The high court was more troubled by the idea that the passengers were questioned even though there was no reason to suspect they had done anything wrong.
"Historically, this has not been a country in which citizens are required to heel to the demand of a policeman to 'show me your papers,' nor will we indulge law enforcement conduct that leads us in that direction," Justice Venters wrote.
To drive home the point, the high court rejected the use of a 2011 Court of Appeals ruling, Ward v. Kentucky, to support the practice of running routine warrant checks on passengers. The justices held either the decision is being misinterpreted, or the decision is wrong.
"To the extent that Ward may be construed to hold that a passenger in a routine traffic stop may be detained for the purpose of the obtaining of his identification papers for the running of a warrant check, it is accordingly overruled," Justice Venters wrote.
State prosecutors relied heavily on the notion that a policeman can engage in voluntary conversation at the end of a traffic stop. The supreme court rejected this pretext, reasoning that police officers have unique authority to stop traffic, and it is a stretch to claim that after disrupting a driver's travel on the highway with a show of governmental authority he could be presumed to engage in a friendly consensual encounter like an ordinary man on the street.
"We therefore believe that in the usual case, once the purpose of a traffic stop has concluded, any follow-up conversation between the police and the detainee is presumed to be custodial except when it was clearly shown to have been initiated by the motorist alone; otherwise, the rule against prolonging a traffic stop beyond its purpose is to a large extent undermined, if not eviscerated," Justice Venters concluded.
A copy of the decision is available in a 200k PDF file at the source link below.