Case Study: Was Officer Smith’s Actions Legal?

A motor officer patrolling in Arizona on a BMW...
A motor officer patrolling in Arizona on a BMW "motor" Photo © by Jeff Dean (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Tabetha Cooper

As a police officer, daily duties vary.  Through performing those duties, a law enforcement officer is faced with many legal issues regarding how to handle the situation.  As it can be seen in the following case study, there are several question about the rights of the individual Officer Smith stopped.  We will explore questions of suspicion, pat downs, exigent circumstances, the plain view doctrine, and admissible evidence.
“Officer Smith is on routine night time patrol when he notices the vehicle in front of him appears to have a broken taillight which appears to be covered with colored tape. He directs the driver to pull the car to the side of the road. The car is an older model gold Pontiac and as Officer Smith walks to the driver-side of the vehicle, he remembers that a car fitting this general description was the suspected car in a recent road side killing of a fellow police officer. Wanting to make sure that he is safe, he asks the female driver to step out of her vehicle for a brief pat-down for weapons. He pats her down and finding no weapons, Officer Smith asks the driver to have a seat back inside her vehicle. He then asks her for her driver’s license and registration. Instead of providing her driver’s license and registration, the driver speeds away resulting in a high speed chase. The chase ends when the fleeing car hits a telephone pole and crashes. Concerned that the car may ignite in flames from a leaking gas tank, Officer Smith removes the unconscious woman to a safe distance from the vehicle. He returns to the vehicle to locate her purse for identification. As he enters the vehicle, he notices the glove compartment has popped open and that underneath some documents is a gun which he retrieves. He also retrieves the driver’s purse from the floor on the passenger side of the vehicle. He opens the purse to get the woman’s identification and finds what appears to be a baggie of marijuana. It is later determined that this vehicle was not the car involved in the shooting death of the fellow officer. It is also later determined that the taillight was not broken.”

            The first question to arise in this situation: Does Officer Smith have reasonable suspicion to make the initial stop of this motorist?  Black’s Law Dictionary (1999) defines reasonable suspicion as “a particularized and objective basis, supported by specific and articulable facts, for suspecting a person of criminal activity.”  In other words, if you think someone’s behavior is off or see that someone’s behavior is off, you can explain the behavior, and the average human being would agree that the behavior isn’t right, you have reasonable suspicion.  In this case study, Officer Smith could clearly see that they taillight of the motorist’s car was broken.  Anyone looking at the taillight would be able to clearly see that it was broken.  So yes, Officer Smith had every right to perform the initial traffic stop.
As Officer Smith walks to the window of the driver’s car to acquire license and registration and to inform the driver of the violation, it dawns on him that the car fits the description he was given of a car that was involved in the murder of a fellow officer.  This gives him reason to believe that the driver of the car may have committed a crime or at the very least the car contains evidence that will be connected to murder of his fellow officer, this is probable cause (Black’s Law Dictionary, 1999, pp.1219).  This is enough to get a search warrant, but since he has the motorist (now suspect) stopped and has a reason to fear for his safety, Officer Smith can exercise the right to a Terry Stop or Stop and Frisk, awarded to him through the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Terry v. Ohio case of 1968.  In this case the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional for an officer to stop and pat down someone that they have reasonable suspicion could be carrying a weapon.  The is no need for a search warrant or even probable cause to temporarily detain someone for the purpose of patting them down based on that reasonable suspicion (Roberson, Wallace, & Stuckey, 2007, pp. 82-83).   Officer Smith was well within his rights to ask the driver to exit the vehicle so he could pat her down for weapons to ensure his safety.  He did not detain her for a lengthy amount of time, once he found no weapons he asked her to return to her car and to produce her identification and registration. Instead she elects to drive off.
So now to be asked, does Officer Smith have exigent circumstances to commence a pursuit with this suspect?  Black’s Law Dictionary (1999) says that an exigent circumstance is a situation that requires “unusual or immediate action.”  Since Officer Smith already had probable cause that the suspect or car had committed a crime already has a reason to chase after her.  Add in the factors that now she has refused to produce identification and that she has fled the traffic stop, his probable cause has strengthened.  He now has more reason to chase and the fact that she fled gives him the protection to do so due to exigent circumstances. 
During the pursuit the suspect wrecks her car.  She is unconscious and the gas tank is leaking gas.  Officer Smith now has the duty of saving the suspect from the car before a fire ensues.  Now the exigent circumstances have become even more defined.  He needs to return to the car to retrieve her purse in an attempt to identify the woman so that the hospital can pull up the woman’s medical records.  Since he is still has probable cause that the car has been used during the murder of his fellow officer, he needs to search the car as well for evidence that may pertain to that case.  Legally he needs to, so he goes through her purse and not only finds the woman’s identification but he also finds that she is concealing a bag of marijuana.  Since he legally could go through her purse to find her driver’s license, the marijuana can be used against her for a drug charge.  Officer Smith then returns to look for evidence in the homicide case.  He finds that a gun has fallen out of the glove compartment while looking for the purse.  Even though it is slightly covered up with some documents it still falls under the Plain View Doctrine; which states that anything that is sitting where any person could walk by and can see it, is not subject to privacy rights (Roberson, Wallace, & Stuckey, 2007).  The reason it falls under the Plain View Doctrine is because, now that an accident has occurred, any emergency personnel or Good Samaritan has access to the gun while trying to help the “victim” gather her belongings.
Even though it was later discovered that the car was not the car from the officer’s murder nor did it have a broken taillight, everything Officer Smith done during this incident was completely right and complied with regulations.  Officer Smith, for one reason or another, thought that he had seen a busted taillight and tried to perform a simple traffic stop.  He then realized the car matched the description of one that the department had an all point bulletin out on.  For his safety he asked the woman to exit the vehicle so he could perform a stop and frisk.  When nothing resulted from the stop and frisk he allowed her to return to her car to complete the traffic violation.  She set forth the motions that followed: She fled, led the officer in a high speed chase, wrecked, and then the contents of her car became viewable to the general population or spectators.  She may have not committed a crime prior to fleeing but once she decided to do so she had the general intent to get away from the officer and is responsible for the information the officer is now privy to, making the evidence admissible (legally allowed) in court (Lippman, 2007).  Had she just produced her license and registration, most of these events would have not happened and I am sure that if any charges would have resulted they wouldn’t have been severe as the one’s she is now facing.  Upon learning the definitions and connecting how they apply in this case, most people would come to the same conclusion.

Garner, B.A. (1999). Black’s Law Dictionary. 7th ed. West Group. St. Paul. Minn.
Lippman, M. (2007). Contemporary Criminal Law: Concepts, Cases, and Controversies. Sage                   Productions, Inc. Thousand Oaks. Ca.
Roberson, C., Wallace, H., & Stuckey, G.B. (2007). Procedures in the Justice System. 8th Ed.                   Pearson Prentice Hall. Upper Saddle River. NJ.

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1 comment:

  1. "...determined that the taillight was not broken.” It was night time one would know if the light was out or not. Try the explanation again.


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