(CN) – Police can make illegal traffic stops if the driver or passengers have outstanding warrants, the divided Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled.
Alvaro Mazuco was indicted in El Paso for possession of ecstasy after police stopped the Mustang in which Mazuco was a passenger.
Believing that the Mustang had illegal white taillights instead of red, the officers pulled the car over and ran the identification of the driver and his passenger, Mazuco.
Because Mazuco had multiple outstanding warrants, officers instructed the suspect to get out of the car, patted him down, and found ecstasy and marijuana in his pockets.
As Mazuco’s case proceeded to trial, the owner and driver of the Mustang showed that the taillight were not illegal. Ruling that the search was therefore illegal, the trial court suppressed the ecstasy evidence.
The Eighth Court of Appeals agreed that the stop was bogus, finding that police “lacked justification to make the stop at its inception because the car’s taillights were not white, as the officer testified.”
That court concluded that the discovery of Mazuco’s outstanding warrants did not “purge the taint of the primary illegality of the initial stop.” To find otherwise would encourage police to seize suspects with inadequate grounds, the court found.
But a five-justice majority of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals concluded otherwise last week.
“We conclude that the temporal proximity between the first illegal arrest and the second legal arrest does not bear on the attenuation,” Justice Tom Price wrote for the majority. “This factor has been cited and considered exclusively in cases where confessions or statements were obtained from a suspect subsequent to an illegal arrest. We also reason that, unlike the confession cases, where the statements can be seen as a psychological product of the arrest, the diminution of the likelihood of the discovery of physical evidence as a result of the illegal arrest cannot be a function of the passage of time. Thus, we conclude that the temporal proximity factor is of no moment in this case.”
The Arizona Supreme Court recently ruled that the subsequent discovery of a warrant after an illegal stop is minimally important regarding taint analysis, and that proximity in time is important only when there is no warrant discovered between the illegal stop and when the evidence is seized.
“When an outstanding arrest warrant is discovered between the illegal stop and the seizure of physical evidence, the importance of the temporal proximity factor decreases,” Price wrote. “Under this scenario, the intervening circumstance is a necessary but never, by itself, wholly determinative factor in the attenuation calculation, and the purposefulness and/or flagrancy of the police misconduct, vel non, becomes of vital importance.”
Four justices dissented, with two authoring separate opinions.
Justice Lawrence Meyers’ dissent warns that the majority opinion opens “the door for police to ignore the probable cause requirement and make traffic stops without adequate grounds for doing so.”
The “practical effect” of the majority’s opinion is to encourage police to unlawfully stop motorists in the hope that an arrest warrant will be discovered in the process, Meyers wrote.
Justice Cheryl Johnson targeted the actions of the arresting officers in her dissent.
“Ignorance of the law is no defense,” Johnson wrote. “We have all heard that statement many times, usually in the context of a defendant who claims not to have known of the law he or she is charged with violating. If an average citizen cannot plead ignorance of the law, how are we to condone a law-enforcement officer, who is charged with knowing the law he or she enforces, using that excuse to justify a traffic stop that is blatantly improper?”
Johnson said the appeals court correctly concluded that, without the highly improper traffic stop, the officers would not have collected all the “fruits of the poisonous tree,” including Mazuco’s name, finding his active warrants, or searching and finding the drugs.