Wednesday, September 07, 2011

U.S. v. Rodgers (9th Cir. - Sept. 7, 2011)

Judge Callahan begins her dissent in this case by saying:  "The police acted admirably, reasonably, and lawfully throughout the events giving rise to this case."  That seems right to me.  With the exception of the words "lawfully" and "throughout."

Police officer Ryan Moody was cruising a high-crime (read: low-income) area in Lakewood, Washington known for drug dealing and prostitution, including underage prostitution, at 3:30 a.m.  He did what I would hope many police officers would do in that setting:  checked lots of random license plates for outstanding warrants and stolen vehicles.  Because there's probably a nontrivial number of those.  On the theory that a decent number of people out at 3:30 a.m. in such an area are up to no good.  Moreover, getting a "hit" on the plate gives an officer probable cause to stop the cars, and then you'll be able to pick people up for parole violations, drug crimes, DUIs, and lots of other stuff.  That's the way these things work.

He runs one of the plates and it comes back as registered to a black Pontiac Grand Am.  But the Grand Am it's attached to is gold.  Moody knows that sometimes you steal plates to hide the fact that the actual car you are driving is also stolen.  And you can't always find a perfect match, so sometimes you steal plates from (for example) a black Grand Am since it's the closest you can find.  So he pulls the car over.

The majority, in an opinion written by Judge McKeown, says that this is a "thin" basis for stopping the car and that it's an "exceedingly close" question as to whether that counts as "reasonable suspicion" of a crime.  Not for me.  I agree it's not illegal to paint your car, and there's no requirement to update your registration with the current color.  But we're talking reasonable suspicion here.  A nontrivial number of plates in such a high-crime location at 3:30 a.m. are going to turn out to be stolen.  I think you can stop someone for that.

Is it crystal clear?  No.  But I'm not sure it's "exceedingly close".  "Close" is as far as I'd go, and I'm not even sure I'd go that far.

So things are okay, at least in my view, thus far.  Then Moody approaches the vehicle and sees that the driver is a 51-year old guy he recognizes from two prior traffic stops.  Read:  A Likely Criminal.  Moody's already-tingling spidey sense goes off even stronger when he sees the driver's passenger, who's a girl who looks to be 12 or 14 years old.  A teenager hanging out with an unrelated lowlife at 3:30 a.m. in a high-crime area known for prostitution?  Read:  A Potential Underage Prostitute.

Alarms go off even further when the girl is nervous and doesn't make eye contact.  But Moody goes ahead and asks the driver for his license and registration, and verifies that, yep, everything's okay.  It's his car, and the VIN numbers (which Moody checks) match.  The driver says he recently painted the car.  That's what he indeed clearly did.  The guy's committed no crime.  Time to let him go.

But Moody's still suspicious of the girl.  And, by implication, the driver.  Rightly so, in my view.  She might be a runaway.  A prostitute.  Both, likely.  Or maybe even kidnapped.  So he continues to detain the vehicle and interact with the passenger.

I get that there's an argument that this unnecessarily -- and arguably unconstitutionally -- prolongs the length of the stop of the vehicle.  But I nonetheless think it's reasonable.  There's something wrong here, and what Officer Moody knows seems to me sufficient reasonable suspicion to prolong the stop for a little bit despite the fact that what he originally stopped the car to investigate turns out to be a non-issue.  It is, as Judge McKeown rightly notes, an "evolving situation," and so I continue to be okay with the stop thus far.

The tingling in Moody's brain gets even stronger once he asks the passenger her name and how old she is, she responds with a name and says she's 19 (but has no identification), and then he runs her name and date of birth and comes back with an arrest warrant for that exact name and date of birth but a different year -- three years later than the girl claims she was born (which would make her, in fact, 16).  That makes Moody think two things:  (1) the girl has repeatedly lied to him (which is a crime), and (2) the girl may well have an arrest warrant out for her.

At which pont Moody can probably arrest her.  The majority opinion says that this is crystal clear, and I'd personally lean more towards "likely".  Seems like there's probable cause to me.  Could be, of course, that there's another person with the same name and month/day of birth.  I'm not sure how likely that is, since we only know her initials (S.F.) and don't know if that's an unusual or common name.  But that's still likely to be probable cause for me.

So again, up to this point, I agree with Judge Callahan's opening line.  What the officer has done is, at this point, both reasonable and commendable.  I like my police officers like this.

It's at this point, however, that Judge Callahan and I diverge.  Officer Moody (and the backup officers he called) doesn't arrest the girl, who (alongside the driver) have been removed from the vehicle.  Rather, he decides to search the vehicle.  Ostensibly to see if he can find any identification for the girl.  (We all know why he's really searching, but remember that the subjective intentions of the officer don't matter.  At which point he finds -- surprise! -- drugs in the center console, at which point there's a further search which finds more drugs and a firearm.  Leading to, predictably, charges against Rodgers.

That's the part at which the facts become unreasonable and a violation of the Fourth Amendment.  There's no reason whatsoever to believe that the girl has ditched identification in the vehicle.  There's no "she was staring longingly at the console" or anything like that -- and even then, such conduct would hardly have reflected her worry about identification -- and there was already probable cause to arrest her, and she could accordingly have already been booked and printed.  Moreover, if (as Officer Moody allegedly suspected) she was in fact only 14, she likely wouldn't have identification anyway, and the theory that he could reasonably search the vehicle in order to find a library or YMCA card -- which wouldn't have her birthday on it anyway -- is silly.  At this point, there's a basis for arresting her, but no basis for searching a car to which she no longer has any access (having been removed from it).  You're simply looking for evidence of a (different) crime.  That's not allowed.  Which is what the Ninth Circuit rightly holds.

As I was reading the case, I thought it'd be about the stop and arrest of the girl.  I would have been slightly conflicted but ultimately okay with that, and thought (from the lineup of the panel) that the majority was going to hold otherwise and that I'd thus disagree.  But even though I have slight disagreements with portions of Judge McKeown's opinion at the margins, as for what the case actually turns on, I agree with her.

Which is not to overlook the fact that I also agree with a portion of what Judge Callahan says.  What Officer Moody did here was perfectly fine, and his concern for the teenage girl was affirmatively commendable.  I do not have a doctrinal problem with most of what he did.  Right up to the point he searched the car.

At that point, he crossed the line.  And turned an otherwise permissible stop into a violation of the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.