When The Police Stop You: the Law and Your Need for a Zealous Defense Lawyer
The death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department continues to be big news here in Dallas and the rest of the country: this week, the six police officers who were arrested in connection with what the medical examiner ruled a homicide of Freddie Gray are quickly beginning their defense.
Probable Cause and Freddie Gray
The latest: the Baltimore police officers have moved the court to see the knife that Freddie Gray had in his possession at the time of the incident.
The prosecution has stated that there was no reason to arrest Freddie Gray, in legalese “no probable cause,” pointing to the knife he carried as being legal to possess under Maryland law. The police officers are maintaining that the knife was not legal, but a switchblade, and they’ve filed a motion in the criminal court to confirm that Gray’s knife was a reason to arrest.
The charging documents for Freddie Gray shows that he was arrested for violation of statute 19 59 22, “… SwitchBladeKnives, on or about p4/12/2015 1700 blk Presbury St, Baltimore, MD, … did unlawfully carry, possess, and sell a knife commonly known as a switchblade knife, with an automatic spring ….”
That still has to be explained.
Read the Baltimore Police Department Charging Documents here.
Your Question: What Happens When the Cops Stop Me (or Someone I Love)?
Meanwhile, the big question that form in lots of people’s minds is this: when the police stop me, or my husband, or my boyfriend, or my son, or my nephew, then what is legal for them to do and what is NOT? What are the limits on the police officers in dealing with people going about their business on the street?
From a criminal defense lawyer’s point of view the answer is this: the federal constitution is the bottom line in protecting the public from overzealous or unethical police officers and together with federal and state laws, there are clear lines of protected privacy which law enforcement should know to respect from their training.
All too often, the police break these laws knowingly or unknowingly — and it’s up to the defense attorney to fight for justice against an abuse of police power and a violation of search and seizure laws.
Supreme Court of the United States and the Police Department
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by any agent of the government, from local police officers to county sheriff’s deputies, to FBI agents or Texas Rangers. It’s a balance between protecting the public and keeping people safe from bad things and making sure that law enforcement doesn’t use its power to violate someone’s protected privacy rights.
The United States Supreme Court is the ultimate decision-maker on whether or not something is reasonable for a search and seizure in this country, and over the years the Highest Court in the Land has explained what cops can and cannot do. For instance:
- Police can stop a person when the police officer “observes unusual conduct which leads him reasonably to conclude that criminal activity may be afoot, the officer may briefly stop the suspicious person and make reasonable inquiries aimed at confirming or dispelling the officer’s suspicions.” Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968); Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366 (1993)
- Police officer can pull a car over in a “traffic stop” if “he has reasonable suspicion that a traffic violation has occurred or that criminal activity is afoot.” Berekmer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420 (1984); United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266 (2002).
- If the police officer has probable cause (there’s that phrase again) to believe that there is evidence of criminal activity in a car or vehicle, then the officer can search any part of the vehicle where that evidence might be hidden or found. Arizona v. Gant, 129 S. Ct. 1710 (2009).
- Students at school can be searched by school police officers or school authorities without a warrant as long as the search is reasonable under the circumstances. New Jersey v. TLO, 469 U.S. 325 (1985).
Two Recent Supreme Court Decisions Regarding the Police
You would think that what the police can and cannot do would be clear to everyone, right? No. The police still do things that are challenged, and the cases still make their way up to the High Court for the Supreme Court’s ultimate ruling on things.
In other words, police do stuff all the time that may or may not be okay under the federal constitution and defense lawyers have to fight in cases that may end up going all the way to Washington before the cops are told they did something wrong. Or not. Sometimes the cops win.
1. Heien v. North Carolina — cops had no probable cause, no problem!
For instance, this month the Supreme Court decided Heien v. North Carolina and the police won. In that case, back in 2009 there was a traffic stop for a broken brake light. Problem is, the cop pulled the car over for that broken taillight even though under state law at the time it was okay to drive with a single broken brake light as long as the other one worked.
So, the police had no “probable cause” (there’s that phrase again) to pull the car over. And that meant the cops had no right to search the car (which they did, and they found drugs and arrested the guy).
Cops were wrong, right? Not so, said the Supreme Court. According to Chief Justice John Roberts: “Because the officer’s mistake about the brake-light law was reasonable… the stop in this case was lawful under the Fourth Amendment.”
Read Heien v. North Carolina here.
2. Rodriguez v. United States — 3 years for justice after arrest
Another case this week: here, the Supreme Court did find that the police violated the Fourth Amendment because traffic stops cannot take too long. In this case, a police officer, who had his drug sniffing dog with him, pulled someone over on a Nebraska road. It was a routine traffic stop which doesn’t allow the police to use a drug dog unless the driver consents. When asked, the driver said Nope. No dog.
Now, the cop didn’t let the guy drive off; instead, he called for back-up and they sat there by the roadside for 8 minutes until another Nebraska police officer came to help.
The High Court ruled that the use of the drug sniffing dog here violated the constitutional rights of the driver. From Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “a police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures. … [A]n officer…may conduct certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop … a dog sniff, unlike the routine measures just mentioned, is not an ordinary incident of a traffic stop.”
So, the driver got arrested after the drug dog sniffed around and he had to take his case, with his defense attorneys, all the way to the Supreme Court before that arrest was shown to be bogus. The arrest was in 2012.
Read Rodriguez v. United States here.
Bottom Line: All Too Often, You Have to Defend Yourself In Court After Bad Things Happen
There are laws in place, both criminal laws and civil statutes, that exist solely to protect people from the police. We’re seeing them play out right now in Baltimore as charges have been filed against the six police officers in Freddie Gray’s death and those defendants are now moving forward with their criminal defense arguments.
However, again from a criminal defense lawyer perspective, the laws are only as good as they are respected by the police officers out on the street — for many people, the reality is that police officers will cross the line and the person ends up arrested (if not worse). That person will have to fight for justice, not just against the charges themselves (drug charges, carrying an illegal knife, etc.) but they will have to fight against being a victim of law enforcement gone rogue.
Today, criminal defense lawyers are advocates for their clients against the bad police activity just as much as defending their client against the substantive charges brought against them for violation of some aspect of the Texas Penal Code or federal laws.
Defense lawyers must face these two-tier defense battles all too often here in Dallas and North Texas. Things are far from utopian here.
For example, here in Dallas we have news today that last fall’s video of that homeless man being beaten by a Dallas Police Officer has resulted in the grand jury not finding probable cause to prosecute that officer. Police officer wins.
Read, “Grand jury declines to indict popular Dallas officer for altercation with panhandler,” from yesterday’s Dallas Morning News.
Maybe you remember the video, Dallas. What do you think??
For more information, check our our resources page and Michael Lowe’s Case Results.
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