US Supreme Court restricts length of traffic stops

judgeWhen stopped by police it is seldom a good idea to agree to a search of your car, your purse, yourself, your house, or anything else. Today’s decision by the U.S. Supreme court in Rodriguez v. United States underlines this truth:

FACTS:

A cop pulled over the defendant Rodriguez for a minor traffic violation. He checked Rodriguez’ license and registration, then issued Rodriguez a warning ticket. After concluding the reason for the stop, he asked Rodriguez for permission to walk his drug-sniffing dog around the car. Rodriguez refused, so the cop made him wait 7-8 minutes until a backup officer arrived. A drug dog then sniffed the car and drugs were found. Rodriguez was convicted.

HELD:

The Supreme Court threw out the conviction, noting that an officer’s job during traffic stops typically includes only those issues involved in the safe operation of a motor vehicle: checking for a valid operator’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance. The court held a dog sniff is not part of an officer’s “traffic mission.”

Unless the officer has a reasonable and fact-based suspicion that further criminal activity is afoot, he may not prolong the stop beyond that time necessary to complete the traffic investigation. In Rodriguez’ case, the legal traffic stop ended the moment Rodriguez was handed his warning ticket.

The court also made it clear that it did not matter whether the dog sniff occurred in the middle of the stop or at the end. A valid stop ends and the illegal detention begins either:

  1. as soon as the investigation concludes; or
  2. as soon as it ought to have been concluded, which ever comes first.

The cop cannot extend the length of the detention–whether during or after the stop–unless he has additional evidence of a crime.  Even if the delay is very brief, any continued detention is considered illegal.

Could Red Light cameras be killing us — to make money?

Last month we read the headline:  Missouri Supreme Court Strikes down Red Light cameras.” Depending on the reporter, some media outlets got the story right and some did not.

In fact, red light cameras had little to do with the Supreme Court’s opinion at all. It was the City of Springfield’s enforcement scheme that was condemned by the court. The short version is that Springfield’s red light defendants could not get a real trial, nor a proper appeal. “Nice try, Springfield” the court seemed to say, “but you can’t do that.”  Other cities with red-light cameras–such as Columbia, Missouri–may well have judicial schemes that pass muster.

More interestingly, however, the court recounted the facts of the case. The defendant was Adolph Belt, a 30-year veteran of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Experienced at traffic control, Belt investigated the traffic light cycle at the intersection where he was photographed running a red light. The yellow light lasted about 3.5 seconds (too short a time for most traffic light situations).

It turns out that the city of Springfield prepared for the installation of its red light camera system by slashing the yellow warning time by one second at 105 intersection signals across the city.  A 2005 Texas Transportation Institute study had shown that a “one-second reduction in yellow time resulted in a 100% increase in the number of violations.” See City Lowers Yellow Light Time Before Installing Cameras. Springfield has been noted as one of “6 Cities That Were Caught Shortening Yellow Light Times For Profit

It doesn’t take a genius to know that if shaving a second off the yellow light doubles the number of “violations” (meaning the number of red lights being run through), then that lost second is CAUSING accidents.

It is beyond argument that when a yellow light is shortened beyond a certain point, it can be impossible to stop safely before running the red light. Not only do cities know this when they shorten their yellow lights, THEY INTEND IT.

To consciously create such a risk is reckless conduct and if a person were killed in this “shortened yellow” scenario, the city and its leaders would be guilty of Involuntary Manslaughter under section 565.024, RSMo.

Perhaps this situation will give a boost to Senator Jim Lembke’s MIssouri Senate Bill 637 which will forbid the use of red light cameras and thereby remove the incentive for this lethal government scam.


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Proposed Missouri law would nullify federal gun laws

A proposed Missouri law pokes a (trigger) finger in Congress’ face. The proposed law, known as the Missouri Firearms Freedom Act, HB 1230, was pre-filed on December 1 by Rep. Cynthis Davis of O’Fallon.

The law is a direct challenge to the authority of the US Congress and would specifically invalidate federal firearms laws. The bill, which cites the 9th, 10th & 2nd amendments, as well as the US Commerce clause, declares that the federal government has no authority to regulate the sale, transport and use of personal firearms (rifles, shotguns and handguns) which are manufactured in–and remain in–Missouri.

The logic of the bill is that many federal firearms laws are based on federal interstate commerce powers. Therefore, if a gun does not enter into interstate commerce, Congress ought to have no authority to regulate it.

That is a fair and reasonable interpretation, but one that was abandoned almost 70 years ago when the US Supreme Court–in the case of Wickard v. Filburn–held that federal laws regarding wheat farming applied to any wheat, grown anywhere in the United States, whether it was sold across state lines or not.

This applied even if the farmer ate the wheat in his own kitchen.


As silly as this sounds, the same principle means that a handgun produced [and remaining] in Missouri is deemed to be involved in interstate commerce. Obviously, passage of this proposed legislation will set up a confrontation between the federal government and some Missouri citizen bold enough to violate federal gun laws based on the new state law. Good luck to that guy.

I didn’t see any provision in the bill claiming that Missouri would in any way defend its citizens against an illegal federal prosecution.

Montana and Tennessee have passed similar laws. Here’s a CNN piece:


Many other state legislatures will likely take up a version of the Firearms Freedom Act in the coming year. Even so, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has declared such laws have no effect on federal enforcement.

The question is whether the US Supreme Court will hold to the Wickard v. Filburn interpretation of the interstate commerce clause. If the commerce clause were to be re-interpreted in a more common sense manner, it would open the door to a massive rollback of federal control over the people and the states. For more information, go to the website Firearms Freedom Act.



BIG U.S. Supreme Court decision on Search & Seizure

Missouri Criminal Defense LawyerIn 1981 the U.S. Supreme Court decided, in the case of New York v. Belton, that if an occupant of a motor vehicle was arrested, the police could search the entire passenger compartment of the vehicle to look for weapons or evidence of a crime.

Under the fourth amendment such a search would normally be considered unreasonable and therefore unconstitutional, unless a search warrant was obtained. Even so, the Belton case has been the rule in Missouri ever since and gave the police an absolute right to search the entire passenger compartment of a vehicle once any occupant of that vehicle has been arrested.

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court in Arizona v.  Gant overruled its 28 year old decision in Belton by holding that the police could not search inside a vehicle, once the arrested person was away from the car, unless they had reason to believe that evidence of the crime might be found in the vehicle.

This is a huge decision.  It is huge because a large proportion of drug arrests occur when the police arrest someone for an unrelated offense such as driving while revoked.  Once the person is handcuffed and placed in the patrol car, the police always return to the vehicle and search the passenger compartment thoroughly.

It will be interesting to see how both police and citizens react to this change in the current search and seizure law.

Citizens may be more likely to step out of their vehicle after being pulled over so as to ensure that they will not have their vehicle searched if they were arrested for some reason.

Search and seizureOne wonders if some police might be tempted to change their current practice of getting suspects out of a vehicle before arresting them. It’s hard to imagine a driver being arrested while still seated in his car and then being commanded to sit still while the officer searches the vehicle around him.  If that were permitted, we might see the police running public service announcements telling drivers to remain in their vehicles when stopped, lest they be attacked by police officers who–misunderstanding the person’s actions-believe they are in danger.

I doubt the courts will permit the police to search vehicles by forcing arrested persons to stay inside the vehicle after arrest. If that is the case, then getting out of your car at a traffic stop would be an unnecessary precaution. It might also serve as a signal to police that evidence of a crime may be in the vehicle.

Another thing we may see is an escalation of vehicles being towed by police after an arrest (for safety reasons, of course). Then the police would thoroughly search the vehicle under what is known as the “inventory” exception to the search warrant requirement.  Click here for “inventory search” explanation.  A driver fortunate enough to be pulled over near a legal parking space may want to take advantage of that opportunity and deny police an excuse to tow the car.

We will have to see how this all plays out.


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