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Officer's 200 Foot Mistake Makes Cocaine Inadmissible

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 07, 2015 3:55 PM

Evidence of a man's possession of cocaine following a traffic stop must be suppressed because of the officer's unreasonable mistakes of law and fact, the Fifth Circuit ruled on Monday. In stopping a driver for failing to signal sufficiently before changing lanes, Texas Highway Patrol Officer was wrong not only about the law, but about the distance between the defendant's activation of his signal and his turn, rendering the stop an unreasonable seizure.

The case marks the first time that the Fifth Circuit has addressed the reasonableness in errors in estimating distances. For an error in distance to be reasonable, the court held, it must be supported with specific, articulable facts, something which was undermined by the officer's misapplication of the law.

What's a Turn Anyway?

Alvarado-Zarza had been stopped by a Texas Highway Patrol Officer ostensibly for "failure to signal 100 feet in advance of a turn." The "turn" in question was actually a lane change in advance of a later turn. For some inexplicable reason, Alvarado-Zarza consented to a search of the vehicle, which was full of cocaine.

He moved to suppress the evidence on the grounds that the stop was unreasonable. Of course, if the officer's stop was unreasonable, the subsequent evidence must be suppressed as it would stem directly from an unreasonable search and seizure prohibited by the Fourth Amendment.

At trial, Alvarado-Zarza argued that the 100 foot requirement didn't apply to lane changes and provided evidence, from the officer's dash cam, that he had in fact signaled at least 300 feet before his turn. The district court rejected his argument, finding that the lane change and turn could be "one prolonged turn."

Fruit of the Poisonous Turn

On appeal, Fifth Circuit held that the officer was unreasonably mistaken about both the law and the facts of the case. The law is unambiguous, the Fifth stated, and clearly distinguished between lane changes and turns.

Further, the officer was unreasonable in mistaking 300 feet, the distance at which Alvarado-Zarza signaled before turning, for less than 100, the distance the officer asserted. Since reasonable suspicion must be supported by specific and articulable facts, the court required more evidence than the officer's simple assertions about the distance. Since the officer was mistaken not just about the law but about the facts, the stop was unreasonable and the evidence must be suppressed.

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