“BAD COP… NO DOUGHNUT.” Supreme Court of the United States*

New Castle Delaware, 1976. A police officer decided to stop a car. No traffic law had been broken. No equipment violations were visible. But the driver, Mr. Prouse, was in for a bad day. At the pre-trial suppression hearing, the officer testified:

“I saw the car in the area and wasn’t answering any complaints, so I decided to pull them off”. (Phrasing!)

The officer admitted he was not acting pursuant to any department standards or procedures. For no particular reason, he wanted to check the driver’s license. He didn’t fess up to any other motivation.

The testimony showed the officer smelled pot as he walked up to the car. There was marihuana in plain view on car’s floor. Mr. Prouse was arrested for possession. Is it just me, or are you flashing on a scene from Cheech & Chong’s movie, “Up In Smoke” (1978)?

The trial court granted Mr. Prouse’s motion to suppress the pot. Given only the explanation the officer had nothing else to do, and couldn’t give any other reason for stopping Mr. Prouse, the court found the stop & detention was “wholly capricious”. The Delaware Supreme Court agreed. But the prosecution wasn’t done losing. They brought the case to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). The country’s highest court agreed with all the lower courts. The stop was bad, and the pot was inadmissible.

Give the history of 4th Amendment cases up to 1979, the prosecution’s tenacity seems misplaced. Eight years prior to Mr. Prouse’s meeting with the bored Delaware cop, the SCOTUS wrote Terry v. Ohio, 392 US 1 (1968). The ruling left no doubt: police needed “reasonable suspicion” to stop a citizen. “Reasonable suspicion” to stop is a lower standard than “probable cause” to arrest. Still, something articulable is needed to suspect there might be a violation of the law.

In Terry, the Supreme Court warned against stopping autos “…on nothing more substantial than inarticulate hunches…”. Re-read the Delaware officer’s quote. It doesn’t even rise to the level of a hunch. It was more of a, “I felt like it.”.

The State of Delaware wanted SCOTUS to agree police should be “…subject to no constraints in deciding which automobiles should be stopped for a license and registration check…”. None. Traffic violations & equipment issues not required. Safety concerns should trump the loss of liberty suffered by citizens and outweigh privacy concerns. Imagine living in a county in which the police can stop anyone just because….

Delaware wanted the police to be able to stop any car for no other reason than furthering the cause of checking drivers’ papers. Now, doesn’t that have an eerie ring? I had opened this blog with, “It was a different world in 1976”. I cut the sentence after a bit of thought.

The SCOTUS decision was written by Justice White. He followed the path already established by the high court in Terry.

“[W]e hold that except in those situations in which there is at least articulable and reasonable suspicion that a motorist is unlicensed or that an automobile is not registered, or that either the vehicle or an occupant is otherwise subject to seizure for violation of law, stopping an automobile and detaining the driver in order to check his driver’s license and the registration of the automobile are unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”

Delaware v. Prouse, 440 US 648 (1979) (emphasis added)

Plainly stated, the police need a reason to stop you. Baseless hunches need not apply. And capriciousness? That is right out. I’ve had clients report to me being told by officers that they were stopped for no particular reason. Just routine. Unless it is a road block run in a uniform way, there is no “routine” allowed. If you respectfully mention “Delaware v. Prouse”, they should recognize the name from the academy.

Coming soon….More on how to deal with a traffic stop.

* Well, ok….they didn’t really say that. But they should have. I bet Justice White was thinking it.

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