CHICAGO (CN) – Police may not stop a vehicle only because it emerged from a site suspected of drug activity, the 7th Circuit ruled.
The Fourth Amendment ruling stemmed from a 2009 methamphetamine investigation in western Wisconsin. After hearing testimony from a drug maker-turned-informant, Ed Olmsted, Sergeant Brian Kingsley of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department, drove to a rural cabin to conduct surveillance.
Arriving with another officer at about 11 p.m., Kingsley observed a cabin and light in the distance. The driveway to the property was blocked by a locked cable.
While preparing his surveillance gear, Kingsley accidently beeped his horn. In response, a vehicle near the cabin turned its lights on and started down the driveway. Kingsley moved his car away from the driveway without turning on his lights to observer. The car stopped at the cable before returning to the cabin.
Kingsley, who had spent 17 years with the sheriff’s department and assisted over 40 meth lab busts, considered the behavior unusual.
When a vehicle left the cabin five minutes later, Kingsley pulled it over.
“Kingsley frankly conceded that he did not observe any traffic violations before the stop,” 7th Circuit Judge John Tinder wrote.
While interviewing the two occupants, Daniel Bohman and Jake Barttelt, Kingsley smelled anhydrous ammonia, an ingredient in meth. Concluding that he had uncovered a meth cook site, Kingsley called back up and placed both men in separate cars.
While in the car, Bohman admitted that Barttelt was cooking meth. A subsequent search of the cabin supported by a warrant based in part on information learned during the vehicle stop, confirmed that it was a lab.
Bohman pleaded guilty, conditional upon his right to appeal the admission of evidence resulting from the traffic stop.
Tinder summarized, “Bohman maintains that if the stop was unreasonable, then anything obtained during the stop should be suppressed and the cabin search would be fruit from that poisonous tree.”
Though admitting Kingsley’s reasonable suspicion for stopping the car was a “debatable point,” U.S. District Judge William Conley found that Olmstead’s information and the “suspicious behavior” in regards to the horn honk provided sufficient justification.
Conley also concluded that because Kingsley had acted in good faith his conduct did not justify exclusion of evidence.
But the 7th Circuit reversed.
“A mere suspicion of illegal activity at a particular place is not enough to transfer that suspicion to anyone who leaves that property,” Tinder wrote.
Police must meet a higher standard unless an individualized suspicion (in this case, for Bohman) was present, the three-judge panel noted.
“For instance, an officer with a warrant to search a place may stop anyone leaving that place without additional individualized suspicion … but a mere suspicion of illegal activity about a place, without more, is not enough to justify stopping everyone emerging from that property,” Tinder wrote.
Reasonable suspicion for a vehicle stop is required, the 7th Circuit noted, for the same reasons that the Supreme Court places limits on vehicle checkpoints.
“The government doesn’t justify the stop of Bohman’s Beretta as a permissible checkpoint. But the purported basis of the stop-a suspicion about a place and some surprising behavior a few minutes earlier-would essentially allow the government to set up checkpoint stops outside suspected drug production or distribution sites to detect ‘ordinary criminal wrongdoing.'”
The court also rejected Conley’s good faith reason for allowing the evidence.
“We don’t doubt Kingsley’s good faith efforts. But the government doesn’t point to a single case where the good faith exception applied to a lack of reasonable suspicion and we don’t think it does,” Tinder concluded. The court declined to address the extent of the taint caused by the bad stop, remanding the case for further proceedings.