Friday, February 08, 2019

Vehicle Stop Was Not Supported by Particularized Suspicion

United States v. Martinez, 910 F.3d 1309 (10th Cir. 2018) (UT): The court finds the government failed to offer a specific, articuable and objective factual basis to believe that Martinez was engaged in criminal activity. Too often courts accept the government's attenuated inferences as reasonable suspicion. Martinez is a good case to cite because the court disassembles the government's proposed inferences and thereby rejects its suggestion the inferences established reasonable suspicion. It explained that broad inferences derived from estimates and general descriptions do not prove the officer had a reasonable suspicion to detain the person. At best, the officer who stopped Martinez on the highway had an unparticularized suspicion or hunch.

A police dispatcher reported a bank robbery in Winslow, Arizona. One male suspect wore a Bud Light Hat and the other seen running from the bank wore a blue and white checkered shirt and blue jeans. Another report was issued describing suspicious activity in Flagstaff that occurred before the Winslow robbery. There, a white Cadillac was seen outside a bank earlier in the morning. The driver was said to a Native American man wearing a light blue checkered hoodie and a Bud Light hat. After this second bulletin was sent, Officer Phillips was driving west on I-40. He remembered from one of the bulletins that the driver was wearing glasses but he could not remember which one. Fifteen minutes after he heard the second report, he saw a white Cadillac traveling east on I-40. According to him, white Cadillacs are a rare sight on that stretch of I-40. He turned around and when he pulled up next to the car he had difficulty seeing through the heavily tinted windows but was able to make out from the driver’s outline that he was wearing glasses and "had facial features that led him to believe the driver was Native American male."

Soon afterwards, the officer pulled the car over. He said he did so because he believed it was involved in the Winslow robbery. He conceded the driver had not committed any traffic violations.
The officer told the driver to get out. His earlier observations were partially inaccurate: the driver was a woman, who might not have been Native American - he could not identify her nationality or ethnicity - but she was wearing glasses. He smelled the odor of marijuana coming from the car. Martinez was in the front passenger seat and he detained both of them. The officer searched the car and seized evidence from an unrelated bank robbery in Utah.

The court emphasized for this stop to be reasonable, the officer had to have a particularized and objective basis for detaining Martinez. The district court used four ‘facts’ to justify the detention, none of which persuaded the panel. See the opinion for the Circuit’s dissection of the district court’s findings and reasoning.