8/5/2016Federal Court Finds Stopping At Vegetable Stand Suspicious
An SUV with a blanket in the back at a vegetable stand is inherently suspicious, according to a federal appellate court ruling.
Pulling into a vegetable stand to buy peppers is inherently suspicious, the Second District US Court of Appeals ruled last month. The unanimous three-judge panel upheld the legitimacy of the handcuffing and search of two brothers who raised suspicion because, after stopping at a location near a border checkpoint, they had a blanket covering something in the back of their vehicle.
On the morning of August 22, 2013, Peter and Lorenzo Compton were driving their mother's green 1999 Ford Expedition SUV on State Route 11 in Chateaugay, New York. The road was about a half-mile away from a roadblock set up to search vehicles near the border with Canada.
"My brother and I got out of the SUV and began shopping for plants and vegetables for sale at the farm stand," Peter Compton said in a deposition. "We were speaking with the proprietor and were collecting items to purchase at the stand. We spent approximately ten minutes shopping for items and were about to pay when a marked patrol car pulled into the farm stand."
Each had a pint of peppers in hand when Border Patrol Agent David Gottschall yelled at them to get in their vehicle. After they complied, the agent demanded that they produce identification. Agent Gottschall asked if he could search the vehicle; they both refused. The agent then ordered the brothers out of the SUV, took their keys, handcuffed them, and put each in the back of separate Border Patrol vehicles.
The agent's suspicion was aroused on seeing a blanket in the back of the SUV.
"Based on his experience, Agent Gottschall knew that contraband is routinely concealed with blankets," the official arrest report explained.
The hunch proved correct. A drug dog called in to sniff the SUV turned up four large duffle bags stuffed with 145 pounds of marijuana.
The Comptons challenged their arrest, arguing that the agent had no cause to slap them in handcuffs simply because they stopped at a vegetable stand instead of going through the roadblock. Under the Fourth Amendment, their public defender argued, police need an "articulable suspicion" that goes beyond vegetable shopping and possession of a blanket to justify a warrantless seizure. The judges agreed that stopping at the stand did not justify the stop.
"Avoidance of a checkpoint alone is probably insufficient to establish reasonable suspicion," Judge John M. Walker Jr wrote. "Motorists may intentionally avoid a checkpoint for any number of reasons unrelated to criminal activity. For example, some may wish to avoid the inconvenience and delay of being stopped. Others may find checkpoints stressful and prefer to avoid interactions with law enforcement when possible."
The combination, however, of stopping and shopping near the roadblock proved to be too much of a coincidence for the three-judge panel.
"Because Gottschall had already determined that the SUV had made the abrupt turn into the vegetable stand in order to avoid the checkpoint, Gottschall could reasonably interpret the pepper purchase to be an attempt to conceal that avoidance," Judge Walker explained. "He could reasonably discount the probability of an alternate explanation, such as a sudden pepper emergency (such predicaments occur infrequently) or a simple desire to avoid a delay (taking the extra time to park a car and go shopping is hardly consistent with a motorist who avoids a checkpoint because he or she is in a hurry)."
Peter Compton was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. A copy of the ruling is available in a 240k PDF file at the source link below.