The #BacktheBlue types like to say stuff like “If you don’t want to get arrested, don’t break the law.” But breaking the law is never a prerequisite for a traffic stop, search, and/or arrest. The nation’s top court has already said cops don’t actually have to enforce real laws. They can predicate stops on what they perceive the law to be, whether or not any actual law was broken.
Pretextual stops have also been given the Court’s blessing. As long as there’s a good enough reason to initiate a stop, cops can begin fishing for info or consent for a search. But they have to be quick about it and they have to have something approximating reasonable suspicion to continue questioning unrelated to the stop. There’s not enough of a bright line drawn anywhere that would ensure success in a lawsuit or a suppression hearing. Cops know this so they play the odds.
Sometimes this doesn’t work out for the cops. It’s a rarity but it happens. And it’s happening more frequently thanks to the Supreme Court’s Rodriguez decision and the increasing use of cameras by law enforcement officers.
The Newspaper has grabbed another ruling highlighting a completely bullshit traffic stop that led to drug and gun charges against the driver. The stop was completely pretextual. Pretext doesn’t invalidate a stop but the pretext itself must be valid — either a real traffic violation or one close enough to the real thing that the court can be persuaded to grant good faith.
None of that happened here. The defendant sought to suppress the evidence recovered from the search of his car, arguing he did not break any traffic law that would have given the officer justification to initiate a stop. The government argued that the defendant did not activate his turn signal before performing a right hand turn. It claimed Officer Caleb Sarchet “observed” this violation himself. Officer Sarchet needs to get his eyes checked.
From the decision [PDF]:
The video evidence from Officer Sarchet’s cruiser camera reveals that Defendant activated his turn signal prior to approaching the stop sign at the intersection of Poplar Street and Linn Street and prior to turning from Poplar Street right onto Linn Street. (Govt. Exhibit 2). The video also show that Defendant’s car approached that stop sign close to the righthand curb and that, after Defendant made the right turn, he proceeded in a legal manner for some distance and safely pulled to the curb when Officer Sarchet activated his police cruiser’s overhead lights. (Id.). Moreover, the video reveals that Defendant completed the right-hand turn with reasonable safety and no other traffic might have been affected by his movement. (Id.). In short, the video evidence establishes that Defendant made the right turn at the intersection in accordance with CMC Sections 506-80 and 506-84 after coming to a complete stop.
To “objectively” believe someone violated the law, someone has to, you know, actually violate the law. The officer also claimed he thought the state’s window tint law was violated but undercut that assertion with another assertion, resulting in this own goal.
In light of Officer Sarchet’s testimony clarifying that the sole basis for the traffic stop was Defendant’s alleged turn signal violation, (Doc. 33 at Page 30), the Court need not analyze whether Officer Sarchet had probable cause to belief Defendant violated Ohio Revised Code § 4513.241.
The court distinguishes this cop’s BS from the permissible BS allowed by the Supreme Court’s Heien decision.
The Supreme Court held that that a police officer’s objectively reasonable mistake of law can give rise to reasonable suspicion. In this case, Officer Sarchet stopped Defendant’s car solely because he believed that Defendant violated CMC § 506-80. However, the video evidence reveals that Defendant did not do so. Hypothetically, if a police officer’s alleged sole basis for a traffic stop was that a defendant ran a “green light” (which is obviously not a traffic violation), the Court doubts that the Supreme Court would determine that police officer’s action to be objectively reasonable, as disregard of fact and law are not the same as a mistake of fact and law.
All the evidence from the stop disappears. The defendant is free to go since every bit of evidence the government had came from a traffic stop predicated on someone observing traffic laws.
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