5/28/2015Federal Judge Believes Motorist, Not Cop, In Traffic Stop
US district court judge believes El Paso, Texas cops lied about a speeding ticket to coerce a motorist into consenting to a search.
It is not often that a judge sides with a motorist over the testimony of a police officer. For US District Judge Kathleen Cardone, the testimony of El Paso, Texas cops proved to be so incredible that she had no choice earlier this month than to believe Felicia Waller, who was a passenger in a white 2002 Chevy Tahoe pulled over on September 25, 2014 for allegedly speeding. Instead, Waller wound up arrested by drug task force officers because she had a small amount of ammunition in her own home.
Officers Edward Granados and Thomas Ibarra recognized the Tahoe being driven by Felicia Waller's cousin, Adrienna, because the officers had stopped her four times previously. Adrienna Waller knew the drill. She would be searched, nothing found, and then sent on her way without a ticket. This time, the officers decided to pull her over for allegedly speeding.
No ticket was issued, and the officers did not even run license and registration information through the computer. They already knew it was valid. Nothing was found during a search of the SUV. Felicia Waller expressed exasperation at being constantly stopped by the police, so when one officer said they would leave her alone if they could search her house, she accepted the offer.
"Someone probably threw my name out there that's why you're watching me," she said. "I'm not stupid I know I am being watched. Let's go to my house right now and I'll let you guys search it. You won't find anything. I want to clear my name so you fools will leave me alone."
Waller signed a consent form authorizing the narcotics officers to search her home. This proved to be a mistake, because the officers found a bag with 43 rounds of 9mm ammunition and 21 shotgun shells. Waller thought she had done her time and that she was starting a new life. She did not realize that convicted felons may not possess ammunition, even if they have no gun.
"That's my ammo, I go shooting at the range with a friend, and I use that ammo," Waller explained. "Geez, what's the big deal? Can I not have ammunition or something?"
In testimony, Officer Granados admitted that he had been under pressure to "do some traffic enforcement" as a "crime deterrent." In his first time on the stand, Officer Granados claimed that he did not know Waller. Under cross examination, however, he changed his story and said an informant had identified Waller as being involved in narcotics trafficking. This proved fatal to their case, as the Wallers provided consistent testimony, including a firm denial that the SUV had been speeding.
"The court finds Adrienna's and defendant's [Felicia's] testimony to be more credible than that of Officer Granados's for several reasons," Judge Cardone explained. "Given that Adrienna had already been stopped three times by EPPD that week, the court doubts that she was operating the SUV on September 25, 2014, in blatant violation of several Texas traffic ordinances. Instead, the court finds it more likely that Officer Granados and Officer Ibarra stopped the SUV on September 25, 2014, solely based on their desire to further their ongoing narcotics investigation. This conclusion is consistent with the fact that on all four occasions that the TAC officers detained Adrienna under the guise of a traffic stop, they never once issued her a single citation."
Judge Cardone blasted Officer Granados for his "evasive" testimony, including his denial that he recognized Adrienna Waller. Prosecutors insisted that everything they did was by the book, and that the traffic stop was voluntarily extended.
"The problem with the government's argument is that the court does not believe that this is what actually occurred on September 25, 2014," Judge Cardone ruled. "Instead, the court finds defendant's version of events significantly more plausible, and her testimony more credible."
Because the court believed the officers had pressured Adrienna and Felicia Waller into consenting to the search, the forty-minute roadside detention and search was found to be a violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable seizure.
"Even if the government could establish an 'objectively grounded' basis for stopping defendant's vehicle, the TAC officers' flagrant misuse of the traffic stop as a means to extract defendant's consent to search the Texarkana Home constitutes an independent Fourth Amendment violations," Judge Cardone concluded.
Citing the recent Supreme Court decision in Rodriguez (view case), the court found the traffic stop had been unreasonably extended and that Waller's consent to search came as a result of her unlawful detention. As a result, the evidence against Felicia Waller was suppressed, leaving the government with no case against her.
A copy of the decision is available in a 275k PDF file at the source link below.