12/3/2015Federal Appeals Court Stops Judge Who Believed Motorist Over A Cop
US Court of Appeals sets aside opinion of a judge who found a motorist more credible than state police troopers.
Judges rarely side with drivers over the word of a police officer, and the Sixth Circuit US Court of Appeals took action last week to keep it that way. A three-judge appellate panel corrected a lower court judge believed driver Samuel Duane Johnson Jr was more credible than the Michigan State Police troopers who stopped him.
Johnson, the manager of a pizza delivery store in Flint, was on his way home at 1:45am on May 25, 2012 when he pulled up to the intersection of Cooper Avenue and Wisner Street and saw a police cruiser a block away. Johnson made sure to use his blinker as he made a right-hand turn.
Troopers Bradley Ross and Jason Walters were on "directed patrol" that morning, which means their supervisors expected them to write as many traffic tickets as possible, even for the pettiest of offenses. Typically, this means writing thirty citations in a night.
Trooper Ross insisted that he saw Johnson roll through that stop sign, but Trooper Walters testified that he does not remember seeing that happen. Trooper Ross signaled Johnson to stop, but as a black man, Johnson feared police brutality if he pulled over on a dark, deserted street. He activated his turn signal, slowly rolled through a stop sign while turning right, and pulled into a BP gas station.
Ultimately Johnson was arrested for having a revolver lying on the floor of the vehicle. Johnson sought to have this evidence suppressed, insisting that he never rolled through the first stop sign. His argument was bolstered by the inconsistencies in the troopers' testimony. Ultimately, District Court Judge Linda V. Parker believed Johnson's version of events over that of the troopers, who were under heavy pressure to make traffic stops.
"It defies common sense that defendant (notably with a firearm in his car) would drive past the occupied patrol car and then roll through the stop sign a short distance away," Judge Parker ruled. "Thus, applying common sense, the court also finds defendant's testimony that he stopped and signaled at the intersection credible... In light of the inconsistencies in the officers' testimony, the court cannot ignore the reality that they were patrolling the area for traffic violations."
Prosecutors furious at the ruling decided to appeal to the appellate judges who decided to reinstate the evidence against Johnson. The panel conceded that the traffic stop for allegedly rolling through the first stop sign was illegal, but that the more important question turned on whether Johnson was "seized" when the officers activated their overhead lights.
"Both sides agree... that if Johnson was unlawfully seized before he rolled through the second stop sign, the traffic infraction could not have justified the seizure," Chief Judge R. Guy Cole Jr wrote for the appellate panel.
The troopers were clearly trying to seize Johnson when they activated their lights, but Johnson did not immediately submit to their authority because he wanted to pull over somewhere safe. The appellate court decided that Johnson was not seized because he did not immediately stop.
"There must be some conduct that falls between 'not fleeing' and 'submitting,'" Judge Cole wrote. "Furthermore, the fact that Johnson drove through the second stop sign without actually stopping is itself problematic. Failing to obey a traffic signal can constitute evasive behavior indicating that the driver has not submitted to police authority."
Under this reasoning, Johnson was properly stopped for the rolling stop at the second sign, and his trial will proceed.
A copy of the ruling is available in a 125k PDF file at the source link below.