10/10/2013Texas: Federal Judge Scolds Cop For Bogus Left Lane Stop
Federal judge blasts cop for coming up with an implausible explanation for a pretext stop.
A federal judge on Monday ruled that a Texas state trooper violated the law when he pulled over a motorist for driving too slowly in the fast lane. Trooper Thomas Ladd saw a white Ford pickup truck in the far left lane of Interstate 35 just outside Waco, Texas on March 6, 2012. The pickup, driven by Marcos Antonio Garcia, passed Trooper Ladd's patrol car, but it did not get back into the right lane after the pass. Within 25 seconds of seeing the pickup, according to a dashcam video, Trooper Ladd decided to pull the pickup over. Judge Sam A. Lindsay concluded this had been an unlawful stop.
Garcia argued he could not have moved back into the right lane because the trooper's car accelerated, and he did not want to receive an unsafe lane change ticket for cutting off a police officer. Under cross-examination, Trooper Ladd admitted that pulling in front of him would indeed have been unsafe. The court noted that as many as twenty other vehicles passed Trooper Ladd in the video without moving over, but the officer focused on Garcia. Twenty other vehicles had passed Trooper Ladd, but none of them had been pulled over.
"Only the incurable optimist, the ingenuous, or those who deliberately turn a blind eye would not have reason to believe that something is wrong with this picture," Judge Lindsay wrote in his opinion. "In other words, an objective observer, after reviewing all of the evidence, would recognize that 'there's a dead cat on the line.'"
Under Texas law, a vehicle can only be stopped for a left-lane violation if its driver has been given notice through a "Left lane for passing only" sign. At trial, prosecutors argued that a police officer does not need to see that someone in the fast lane has passed a sign to enforce the left-lane law. A sign was present at mile marker 347, but Garcia was stopped five miles from that location.
"Because Garcia could have entered the Interstate on any of these three ramps after mile marker 347, the court concludes that it was unreasonable for Trooper Ladd to suspect that Garcia had passed a sign at mile marker 347 or earlier, as he is not clairvoyant and had absolutely no way of knowing when Garcia entered the highway," Judge Lindsay wrote.
Judge Lindsay found Trooper Ladd's testimony to be "less than forthright" when prosecutors began trying to argue that the officer's experience of the highway led him to believe he had not taken one of those little-used ramps.
"In responding to this line of questioning, Trooper Ladd frequently shifted his position in the witness chair, paused for long periods of time before answering, and struggled to answer the questions posed," Judge Lindsay observed. "Any 'inference' by Trooper Ladd that Garcia did not likely enter the interstate on any of these three ramps was not reasonable, as it would have been based on nothing more than a hunch or sheer speculation."
Judge Lindsay concluded the traffic stop really had nothing to do with Garcia's driving.
"The court is convinced that Trooper Ladd decided to stop Garcia's vehicle only after he ran a license check and determined that the vehicle was registered in Laredo, Texas, a city on the border between the United states and Mexico, in which substantial amounts of illegal drugs enter this country."
The court suppressed evidence obtained from the search of Garcia's truck, which had turned up 24 pounds of methamphetamine in the muffler. A copy of the ruling is available in a 140k PDF file at the source link below.