9/24/2015Oklahoma Court: Motorists May Not Resist Illegal Traffic Stops
Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals finds man guilty of walking away from illegal traffic stop for failure to use a turn signal.
If a police officer stops an Oklahoma motorist on a bogus charge, the driver must submit. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals came to that conclusion on Friday as it found Nathan Charles Nelson guilty of obstruction for walking away from a cop who had improperly stopped him for failing to use his turn signal on March 19, 2014.
Knowing he was in the right, Nelson refused to cooperate with Tulsa Police Officer Tyler Turnbough. Under Oklahoma law, turn signals are only necessary when other traffic is nearby.
"No person shall so turn any vehicle without giving an appropriate signal as provided in subsection B of this section, in the event any other traffic may be affected by such movement," Oklahoma Code Section 11-604 states.
The roads were deserted, and Nelson was making a left-hand turn into a parking lot. He did not use the turn signal on his Chevy Malibu because there was nobody to see it -- except for Officer Turnbough's squad car, which had been lurking nearby. Nelson parked his Malibu and Officer Turnbough and his partner attempted to write Nelson a ticket. Despite being ordered to stop, Nelson attempted to walk away.
"I can go wherever I want, and you can't stop me," Nelson said.
Officer Turnbough grabbed Nelson, placed him in handcuffs, and hauled him away under arrest. A lower court judge ruled the traffic stop was illegal, but state prosecutors appealed, citing the US Supreme Court decision in Heien v. North Carolina to argue that traffic stops are still valid even when the cop is wrong about the law (view case). The appellate judges did not buy that reasoning.
"At first blush, the Heien case appears applicable to the issue at hand; however, further analysis demonstrates otherwise," Judge Robert L. Hudson wrote for the appellate panel. "In contrast to Heien, this is not a case involving a mistake of law or fact by the officer involved, but a case involving mistakes by the prosecutor."
The state failed to provide any evidence that any other vehicle, including the officer's squad car, was affected by Nelson's failure to signal. The judges, however, refused to suppress the obstruction charge.
"We cannot find that [Nelson's] alleged obstructive behavior to be the product of Officer Turnbough's illegal stop," Judge Hudson wrote. "[Nelson's] decision to behave as he did was an independent and voluntary act which broke the link to any taint caused by the illegal stop."
The judges noted that they had never before considered whether the common law right to resist an unlawful arrest applied to a traffic stop. They used this case to reject the idea.
"The typical motorist simply is not equipped to make a determination of whether there is a legal basis for a traffic stop," Judge Hudson concluded. "Whether the officer did, in hindsight, have probable cause to make the traffic stop should be resolved in a courtroom, not in the streets. To permit otherwise would effectively encourage drivers to engage in potentially explosive self-help methods. This, in turn, would increase the risk of escalating what should be a relatively benign interaction between law enforcement and a driver into a potentially dangerous or violent interaction."
A copy of the decision is available in a 500k PDF file at the source link below.