12/23/2021Federal Judge Catches West Virginia Trooper In Traffic Stop Lie
A US District Court judge tossed a weapons charge after finding a West Virginia state trooper told a dubious tale about seeing a gun during a traffic stop.
By Richard Diamond
A federal judge was not impressed on Monday by the conflicting testimony offered by police officers concerning a June 6, 2020, traffic stop in Chapmanville, West Virginia. On that day, David Lee Bumgarner had been driving a Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck that he had borrowed from his neighbor, Keith McCloud. Chapmanville Patrolman Michael Hall was in an unmarked car when he passed the truck from the opposite direction and realized he could ticket Bumgarner for not wearing a seatbelt. He quickly made a U-turn and initiated a traffic stop.
The court noted Patrolman Hall offered multiple accounts of how long he had followed the truck, ranging from twenty seconds to one minute, before Bumgarner safely pulled over into a parking lot. During the stop, the officer noted nothing unusual about the driver and his passenger. The patrolman had no reason to believe they were involved in any criminal activity as he ran a background check on the truck's occupants.
At this point, West Virginia State Police Trooper Zachary Holden arrived at the scene, claiming familiarity with Bumgarner based on second-hand information. He conducted a pat down search and found no weapons. Bumgarner was handcuffed and locked in the back seat of the trooper's squad car. As he was removing the passenger, the trooper claimed he saw a gun inside the truck from his point of view looking into the vehicle from outside. The gun, a SCCY CPX-2 9mm pistol, was tucked entirely under the passenger's seat according to a photograph taken at the scene (view photo).
At issue before the court was whether the trooper was telling the truth about seeing the pistol in "plain view" which led to Bumgarner being charged as a felon in possession of a handgun. The court was not impressed with the official account of what happened during the traffic stop.
"Trooper Holden testified he was standing upright, outside the passenger side door, and not bending down or into the truck when he saw the firearm," US District Judge Irene C. Berger wrote. "Frankly, viewing the images, this line of vision does not appear possible. The photographs illustrate that even from eye level with the gun, it is completely under the passenger seat and its color blends with the seat and floorboard in the shadowed space."
The judge found no justification for the search since the only "crime" being legitimately investigated was Bumgarner's choice not to wear a seatbelt.
"Trooper Holden failed to develop probable cause that the pickup truck contained any contraband items or that the defendant and his passenger were presently engaged in any illegal activity before entering the pickup truck," Judge Berger noted. "Patrolman Hall's testimony contradicted some of the central points of Trooper Holden's testimony, was internally inconsistent at times, and he answered that he did not recall, in response to questions, at least 14 times. Aside from the frequency with which he did not recall seemingly important details, Trooper Hall claimed to recall certain events with exacting specificity, while not recalling other events in the same timeframe, altogether.... As a result, the court finds the credibility of the evidence presented, including whether the weapon could be seen from Trooper Holden's purported vantage point, to be questionable, at best."
Had the gun been visible, it still would not have been proof of a crime because there is nothing illegal in driving with a gun in West Virginia. Neither officer had direct knowledge that Bumgarner was a felon. As a result, the search was found to violate the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and the evidence against Bumgarner was thrown out.
A copy of the decision is available in a 500k PDF file at the source link below.