2/6/2018Texas Appeals Court: Clean Cars Are Not Suspicious
Cleanliness does not justify a traffic stop, according to a ruling by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Tidy motorists are unusual enough on some Texas roads that they draw the attention of at least one state trooper. In a January 24 ruling, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals went out of its way to overturn the dubious January 26, 2014 traffic stop of Jose Luis Cortez, a fastidious driver behind the wheel of a late model minivan.
The pristine vehicle drew the eye of Trooper Jared Snelgrooes, who has a habit of stopping clean cars that he believes are more likely to be carrying drugs or other contraband. During the Cortez trial, Potter County Judge Douglas Wooodburn double-checked to see whether he was hearing the trooper's testimony properly.
"So you're telling the court that because you see a van, it's clean and it's got two people in it, that was indicators of potential criminal activity for you?" the judge asked.
"Yes, sir, they are," Trooper Snelgrooes replied.
Suspicions aroused, the trooper began following Cortez in the left-hand lane of Interstate 40. The trooper hit the gas so he could pull alongside the minivan. Noticing the officer fast approaching from behind, thinking he wanted to pass, Cortez moved all the way to the right edge of the right-hand lane so that the officer would have plenty of room to get by safely. The trooper insisted that, at this point, the minivan's tires touched the white paint stripe at the lane's edge -- the fog line -- and that this was a violation of law.
Judges reviewing the dashcam recording of the incident could not see the supposed violation, or even how the trooper could see the tires touch the line from his vantage point alongside Cortez. Even taking the trooper at his word, the judges did not believe merely touching the painted line constituted driving on the road shoulder illegally. Texas law provides a number of exceptions for driving on the shoulder, including making room for passing. The appellate majority ruled that it makes no sense to criminalize merely touching the painted line.
"Even a driver who is sober, alert, and careful may occasionally drift within their lane only because the roadway surface is not perfectly smooth," Judge Bert Richardson wrote for the three-judge criminal appeals panel. "Moreover, drivers are not able to see if their tires are touching the fog line. They are likely to veer over at some point and touch the fog line alongside the roadway without being aware they have done so."
State prosecutors had pursued the case vigorously, filing multiple appeals on every aspect of lower court rulings. Cortez was carrying 400 grams of methamphetamine hidden in the minivan's spare tire, and they did not want to lose the case. The court was not persuaded.
"We have kicked the can down the road long enough," Judge Richardson concluded. "It is time that we dispose of the core issue here, which is whether, under the totality of these circumstances, the trooper had an objectively reasonable basis to stop Cortez's vehicle. We hold that he did not."
The Cortez case was no isolated incident. In 2012, Trooper Snelgrooes stopped Neil E. Lawrence who also was accused of illegally driving on the shoulder after his cleanliness drew the trooper's attention. The Lawrence case was appealed to the state Court of Appeals. That court, in a February 3, 2017, ruling, blasted the cleanliness argument in the Cortez case.
"When two people in a clean car indicate criminal activity, then the words of John Lennon have come to fruition: 'Strange days indeed -- most peculiar, mama,'" Chief Justice Brian Quinn wrote.
A copy of the ruling is available in a 350k PDF file at the source link below.