What constitutes reasonable suspicion, from a police officer’s viewpoint, that criminal activity is occurring or is about to occur?
At first glance, this may seem like a simple question. From years of watching TV detective shows and the like, we may expect some basic fact patterns: an officer observes a suspect “casing a joint”, a witness approaches an officer and shares a juicy tidbit that was overheard at a party, or maybe the shifty guy in the corner wearing a trench coat in the middle of the summer seems obvious enough.
Unfortunately, in real life it is rarely so simple and straightforward. Yet, it is an essential question that must be answered by the Court because without reasonable suspicion there is no legal justification for the police to stop or detain a person for further investigation. A properly filed and argued Motion to Suppress by an experienced attorney can result in the suppression and exclusion of any evidence obtained by the police in violation of the 4th Amendment.
The Unites States Court of Appeals recently handed down a decision that further broadens the concept of reasonable suspicion. Essentially, the Court in US v. Pena-Gonzalez upheld a lower court’s decision that found reasonable suspicion existed solely based on the existence of pro-police bumper stickers (of the “D.A.R.E.” and “Back the Blue” variety), air fresheners, and religious symbols on the driver’s keychain (that’s right religious symbols).
In Pena-Gonzalez, the police officer pulled over a vehicle for speeding 2 miles over the speed limit (yep, 2 miles over) and observed the “suspicious” bumper stickers, air fresheners, and religious items in the car. Based on these observations, the officer extended the stop and conducted further investigation in an attempt to uncover any other possible criminal activity. This included further questioning the driver, the passenger, and ultimately, requesting to search the vehicle.
The State’s logic? Pro-police bumper stickers show “a desire to be viewed as a ‘good guy’ who ‘can’t do no wrong’.” Air fresheners were “an attempt to mask the odor of drugs or drug money.” And the religious medallions were “commonly used by drug smugglers … as symbols for righteousness and protection.”
The Court apparently was not persuaded by the Defendant’s logical argument that all these items were “consistent with innocent behavior” and therefore should not be viewed as symbols of criminal wrongdoing.
So, what if you are genuinely a solid citizen who supports the police, loves your God, and appreciates driving in a nice smelling vehicle? Under this Court’s ruling, you are apparently subjecting yourself to an increased change of being interrogated and investigated by the police.
On a larger scale, this case is representative of a simple truth when dealing with the legal system: nothing is as straightforward as it may seem. While common-sense and life experiences may tell you one thing, it is important to never assume what a Court may or may not do. You may think you have an “easy case” (as, many potential clients have tried to tell me over the years) but the law is very nuanced and it is important that you have an experienced and knowledgeable attorney fighting on your behalf.