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Court Says Gov't Has To Give Back $167,000 It Seized During A String Of 4th Amendment Violations


The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has no good news for the lying law enforcement officers who were hoping to walk off with $167,000 of someone else's money. Two years ago, the district court ruled in favor of Straughn Gorman, who was subjected to two lengthy traffic stops in less than an hour by officers hoping to help themselves to cash he was carrying in his RV.

After stopping Gorman for a non-violation (driving too slow in the left lane), State Trooper Greg Monroe spent roughly a half-hour trying to obtain consent to search Gorman's RV. His reasonable suspicion? Gorman's use of the word "chick" to describe the girlfriend he was driving to visit and the supposedly "rehearsed" aspects of his employment history. Trooper Monroe performed an extensive background check on Gorman while hoping to prolong the stop until a K-9 unit could be deployed, but even his non-routine call to an El Paso DEA records center failed to drag out the traffic stop long enough for it to arrive.

All Monroe knew when he finally let Gorman go is Gorman had at least $2,000 on him. Monroe wasn't going to let this money get away, so he called up another officer from another agency and "relayed his suspicions." He also told the other officer (Deputy Doug Fisher) to bring a drug-sniffing dog with him. Fisher wasn't assigned to patrol the highway Gorman was traveling on, but decided that would be the best use of his time.

Fisher pulled over Gorman after his tire touched the fog line a couple of times. Another records check was run, even though Fisher already knew what results to expect, thanks to Trooper Monroe's heads-up. The drug dog supposedly alerted near a right-rear compartment of the RV. Gorman gave the deputy permission to search that area, but that wasn't good enough for Fisher. Fisher said the alert gave him permission to search the entire RV. This resulted in the discovery of $167,000 in cash, which Fisher took. Gorman was (again) free to go. Gorman was never charged with any criminal act, much less given a citation for the supposed moving violations that predicated the two stops.

The government appealed the lower court's decision, which gave Gorman back his $167,000 plus legal fees. It raised a number of defenses for its actions (which included the state's attorney omitting several facts about the two searches from its affidavits), but the Appeals Court is no more receptive of this deception and deceit than the lower court. From the decision [PDF]:

We hold that the search of Gorman’s vehicle following the coordinated traffic stops violated the Constitution and affirm the district court’s order granting Gorman’s motion to suppress. Gorman’s first roadside detention was unreasonably prolonged in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The dog sniff and the search of Gorman’s vehicle, in turn, followed directly in an unbroken causal chain of events from that constitutional violation. As a result, the seized currency is the “fruit of the poisonous tree” and was properly suppressed under the exclusionary rule.

[...]

The coordinated action at issue in Gorman’s case offers a prime illustration of the value of the “fruit of the poisonous tree” analysis. The analysis allows us to see the officers’ conduct in Gorman’s case as what it is: a single integrated effort by police to circumvent the Constitution by making two coordinated stops. When the result of one stop is communicated and, on that basis, another stop is planned and implemented, the coordinated stops become, in effect, one integrated stop that must as a whole satisfy the Constitution’s requirements. An illegal police venture cannot be made legal simply by dividing it into two coordinated stops.

This won't be the only time officers behave this way. The Supreme Court's Rodriguez decision stated traffic stops are over once the "objective is complete." This forces officers to be a bit more creative if they're engaged in fishing expeditions without reasonable suspicion to extend the stop. One "solution" is shown above: have a second law enforcement officer initiate a stop to prolong the roadside investigation without triggering the protections of Rodriguez. Another "solution" is to have K-9 units perform stops or be in close proximity, thus lowering the chances of a court finding the stop to be "prolonged."

Both of these solutions are violations of Rodriguez, even if some courts will award the government points for effort. Fortunately, there are a few courts adhering to the intent of the decision: it's not the length of the Fourth Amendment violation, it's the violation itself.

Unfortunately, anything cash-related tends to make officers bypass their better judgment and push the edge of the Fourth Amendment envelope. The good news -- at least for Straugh Gorman -- is he's getting all of his cash back, plus legal fees. That it took more than two years for this to happen is unfortunate, but to be expected -- especially in a legal system that's stacked against victims of civil asset forfeiture.


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