Thursday, September 12, 2019

Officer testimony about pretextual stops leads to suppression

The lesson from the suppression order in United States v. Coleman, No. 2:18-cr-00219, 2019 WL 4262506 (D. Nev. Sept. 9, 2019) might be: put the officer on the stand. In this case, the officer testified about his unit's practice of using traffic stops to search suspected gang members.

Officers from the Las Vegas "violent crime" or "vc" unit stopped Coleman for driving with high beams on. Officer Ostorga got his identification, asked about his criminal history (prior convictions for robbery, battery and weapons possession), and asked him about gang affiliation. Ostorga remarked that "I am just going to keep asking you until you tell me." Coleman said he had previously been a member of a gang. The officers found no outstanding warrants but did discover that Coleman was on federal supervised release. They decided to contact the probation officer to see if they could get permission to search the car, which was apparently not successful. After remarking that he was not concerned about his safety, Ostorga ordered Coleman out of the car anyway. He frisked Coleman and found nothing. He ordered Coleman to stand in front of the patrol car and visibly inspected Coleman's car with a flashlight, and found nothing. He then asked "Be cool if I search it?" and Coleman did not respond. Ostorga asked again "What's up? You okay if I search it?" Coleman said yes. Eventually Ostorga removed a panel from interior and found a handgun.

The district court suppressed the gun. The court found that Ostorga impermissibly extended the traffic stop by ordering Coleman out of the car, not for any safety reason or traffic-stop purpose, but to continue to search for drugs or guns. In fact, the court noted, searching the car was the officer's purpose from the beginning of the stop, consistent with the vc unit's use of traffic stops for "proactively searching for guns, drugs, and other gang-related contraband." The court also found that the consent was not voluntary, since Coleman had been frisked and searched, was out of his car with his hands on the hood of the patrol car, the officers retained his identification, and Ostorga asked twice for permission after Coleman tried to avoid responding.

Evidence suppressed.




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