A couple of lying cops who couldn’t perform a traffic stop without violating the driver’s rights have just seen their illegally-obtained evidence tossed and their successful drug bust busted. The Louisiana Second Circuit Court of Appeal not only finds the officers untrustworthy but also points out there’s nothing reasonably suspicious about someone’s invocation of their rights.
The traffic stop that resulted in the discovery of methamphetamines was clearly pretextual. There’s nothing legally wrong with using traffic stops to engage in other investigations, but officers must have the reasonable suspicion to navigate away from the initial purpose of the stop. The Supreme Court’s Rodriguez decision removed a lot of the leeway law enforcement officers have exploited for years.
This stop began with the accusation that the car’s driver, Michael Glen Robinson, was failing to stay in his own lane. Robinson’s driving was recorded by the officer’s dash cam, along with the entire traffic stop. The court says it’s not clear Robinson actually violated the law. From the decision [PDF]:
On two occasions, Robinson’s truck can be seen to drift toward the boundary of his lane, perhaps so far as his vehicle’s tires touching the lines marking the boundaries of the lane within less than a minute. The video does not definitively establish that Robinson crossed the boundary line.
The appeals court isn’t willing to overturn the stop itself. But it has nothing good to say about the officers whose testimony was repeatedly contradicted by their dashcam recordings.
It all starts here, with the usual cop claim that the person they stopped seemed nervous.
Officer Lavrinc testified that, at this point, he tried to engage Robinson in conversation to ascertain if Robinson was intoxicated. Officer Lavrinc testified that Robinson’s “mannerisms and his demeanor were a little more intensified than that of somebody on most of the traffic stops of minor traffic violations,” and that Robinson started to get a little agitated and his carotid artery was pulsing “extremely hard.” He also stated that Robinson was sweating, his hands were shaking, and that the more he (Officer Lavrinc) spoke with Robinson, the more irritated and agitated Robinson became.
But that testimony is contradicted by the officers’ recordings:
Officer Lavrinc then asked where they were headed to, and Robinson replied “to visit a friend.” Robinson then indicated he was not able to produce his current insurance card, and asked Officer Lavrinc, “What did I do wrong?” Officer Lavrinc explained that he observed Robinson “riding the line” a couple of times and asked whether Robinson had been drinking, which Robinson denied, stating “No, sir.” Thus far in the interaction, Robinson’s voice did not sound agitated or nervous.[…]
When other officers arrived as backup, Officer Lavrinc returned to Robinson’s truck, and had Robinson step out of his truck and put his hands on it. Officer Lavrinc conducted a Terry frisk of Robinson, and Robinson asked what the officer was doing. Robinson’s voice did not sound agitated, irritated, or nervous at any point thus far either.[…]
The video then shows Robinson leaning against the hood of Officer Lavrinc’s patrol unit and talking with Officer Lavrinc. Robinson asked “What’s the problem?” Again, his tone of voice did not sound particularly nervous or irritated.
Robinson was also calm when he exercised his right to be free of unreasonable searches.
After explaining why he had Robinson get out of his truck, Officer Lavrinc asked whether there were any “guns, knives, bombs, [or] open containers” in the truck, which Robinson denied. Officer Lavrinc retorted, “So then you don’t mind if I take a look in the truck?” Robinson denied consent to search the vehicle, stating “You don’t need to take a look in the truck.” Again, at this point Robinson still did not seem particularly agitated or nervous.
And there are more lies:
According to Officer Lavrinc’s testimony, around this time, he conducted a standard horizontal gaze nystagmus (“HGN”) test on Robinson, seeking to detect signs of intoxication. Essentially, Officer Lavrinc testified that an HGN test is conducted by holding an object in front of the subject’s face and moving it back and forth horizontally, and that he conducted the test on Robinson using a pen tipped with a blue light. Officer Lavrinc detected no indication that Robinson was intoxicated. Contrary to this testimony, Officer Lavrinc never did an HGN field sobriety test on Robinson on camera, and Robinson never left the view of the dashboard camera video from Officer Lavrinc’s patrol unit at any relevant time.
And the search Robinson never consented to occurred anyway.
Meanwhile, Officer Hackett, who had initially walked over with Officer Shane Griffith to Robinson’s location, went to the passenger side window of Robinson’s truck and leaned his head through the window and reached in with his arm. He leaned in far enough that the sole of one of his feet came off the ground as he did so, and the illuminated flashlight in his hand can be seen well inside the truck.
The officer said this was “plain view” when it clearly wasn’t. He was far inside the vehicle when he saw the baggie. The baggie held Robinson’s insurance card. Officer Lavrinc apparently felt this was the probable cause he needed to perform a more thorough search of the truck.
Without first asking Officer Hackett whether he had already grabbed the bag and looked at it, Officer Lavrinc entered Robinson’s truck through the driver’s side door and, after searching for a short amount of time, found marijuana in the center console.
The court says none of these justifications add up.
Moments later, Officer Lavrinc returned from searching Robinson’s truck and announced that he had found marijuana. He placed Robinson and Jones under arrest, and then the officers further searched the truck and discovered the methamphetamine. However, the plastic baggie containing Robinson’s insurance card was not seized or placed in evidence, despite the fact that the officers attempted to justify the protective search in part based on the presence of the baggie in Robinson’s truck. Thus, Officer Hackett must have known that it did not contain drugs prior to Officer Lavrinc’s protective search.
The court says neither officer is credible. Their testimony is contradicted several times by the recording.
Officer Lavrinc’s testimony that he performed an HGN field sobriety test on Robinson irreconcilably contradicts the video/audio recording from his dash camera and body microphone. His testimony regarding the actions he took after Officer Hackett informed him about the plastic baggie also appears to contradict the dash camera video. Additionally, his testimony regarding his suspicion that there were drugs and weapons in the vehicle is internally inconsistent and implausible on its face.
Lavrinc’s testimony was about 90% lies and 10% logical inconsistencies.
In summary, Officer Lavrinc testified that he suspected Robinson was intoxicated, and that he believed he had reasonable suspicion that there were drugs and weapons in Robinson’s truck. Nonetheless, Officer Lavrinc testified that he was planning to release Robinson and Jones to go free in Robinson’s truck – but only after he searched the truck for a weapon to ensure the officers’ safety upon releasing Robinson and Jones. This is inconsistent, illogical and implausible. If Officer Lavrinc believed he had reasonable suspicion that Robinson was driving while intoxicated and carrying illegal drugs, why would he plan to release Robinson (to drive away in his truck) without conducting a dog sniff or a field sobriety test?
And Officer Hackett is no better. His “plain view” assertions are contradicted by his actions and statements, which were all caught on camera.
In the audio recording integrated with his police vehicle’s dashboard camera video, Officer Hackett admitted that he reached in the truck and grabbed the clear plastic bag containing Robinson’s insurance or vehicle registration to check and see if it contained illegal drugs.
This in itself constituted a warrantless search of Robinson’s truck, not a “plain view look” as Officer Hackett testified. Officer Hackett even went as far as attesting specifically that he was not searching the vehicle at this point. Finally, in glaring contradiction to his statement recorded live at the scene of the incident, he also testified that he did not touch the plastic baggie.
Cue benchslap — one that hits Officer Hackett hard enough the trial court can feel it.
Based on this testimony in direct contradiction to the video/audio recordings from the incident, we conclude that Officer Hackett’s testimony is incredible in its entirety. The trial court committed manifest error to the extent it relied on Officer Hackett’s testimony in denying the motion to suppress.
Finally, the court says someone’s insistence that their rights be respected cannot be viewed as “suspicious.”
In light of these facts, and the officers’ lack of credibility, these characterizations provide no support for a finding of reasonable suspicion. Indeed, La. C.Cr.P. art. 218.1, supra, commands police officers, upon detaining a citizen in connection with the investigation or commission of any offense, to fully advise the detained citizen of the reason for the detention. It is a corollary that a citizen has the right to ask for a full explanation of why he is being detained. As a matter of law, the officers’ characterizations of Robinson’s requests for this explanation cannot serve as a basis for reasonable suspicion. The same is true of Robinson’s refusal to consent to a search of his truck, and his objection to Officer Hackett’s unconstitutional search of the truck.
And with that, all the evidence is gone. The suppression motion is granted and these two lying cops are left empty-handed. One would hope this would encourage them to be better cops and respect the rights of citizens. But it will probably only deter them from activating their cameras during roadside fishing expeditions.