Ninth Circuit Authorizes Questionable Traffic Stop

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EBRP police car 1 8-22-09

Obey the rules of the road

A recent opinion out of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stated that a series of legal actions can collectively create the necessary suspicion needed to justify a vehicle stop and search. The case, U.S. v. Valdes-Vega, was decided by the full Ninth Circuit earlier last week and authorized a widely criticized traffic stop by Border Patrol agents that led to the discovery of drugs and the arrest of a Mexican man, Rufino Ignacio Valdes-Vega.

The case began when two Border Patrol agents spotted a Ford F-150 truck driving in a way that caught their attention. The agents said that the driver of the truck appeared to be changing lanes without using a turn signal and was moving approximately 10 miles per hour faster than other vehicles on the road. One of the Border Patrol agents then pulled alongside the driver, noticing that the truck’s plates were from Baja California. The agents say that the driver of the vehicle never made eye contact with the agents, but continued staring straight ahead, something else they deemed suspicious.

The agents then pulled the car over, noticing that there were no other drivers. They then conducted a search and discovered drugs, ultimately leading to drug smuggling charges for Valdes-Vega. The issue that the Ninth Circuit needed to grapple with was whether Border Patrol agents were authorized to make the investigatory traffic stop given the facts of the case.

Ordinarily, the law allows Border Patrol agents to make traffic stops for the purpose of investigation if they have objective suspicion that an individual was engaged in criminal activity. These border stops typically take place on or very near the border with Mexico, something that did not occur in this case. Instead, the stop happened more than 70 miles north of the border.

The majority of the Ninth Circuit had no problem with the location of the stop or the fact that the stop was conducted at all. The majority found that while none of Valdes-Vega’s actions individually justified an investigatory stop, taken collectively it is possible that a series of nonsuspicious actions could create the necessary suspicion of criminal activity to allow a stop.

In this case, the majority noted that the Mexican license plate was one indication that the car had recently crossed the border, a possible reason to allow Border Patrol agents to stop the car. The fact that the vehicle in question was a truck, often used for drug smuggling, was another. The speed of the driver, the lack of other passengers and his lack of eye contact all combined to create reasonable suspicion of illegal activity. The majority wrote that officers do not need to rule out innocent explanations before making a stop and can instead act on their suspicions which arise from a larger context of activity.

A minority group of three justices disagreed with the ruling and argued that the traffic stop was based solely on the driver’s Hispanic appearance. The justices said that changing lanes without signaling, keeping your eyes on the road and driving a truck are not justifications for believing that criminal activity has taken place and should not have been permitted as the basis for the stop in the case.

Source: “Ninth Circuit Rules Innocent Driving Is Suspicious,” published at TheNewspaper.com.