Hot Docs: Appeals court sides with defendant over alleged “failure to signal”

December 20, 2012

Police stopAs criminal law practitioners are no doubt aware, police traffic stops can occur with little or no provocation.

True, a police officer must have a “reasonable suspicion” based on “specific and articulable facts” that the person to be stopped has been, is, or is about to be engaged in criminal activity.

But “criminal activity” involving an automobile is easy to witness: failing to signal a turn or exceeding the posted speed limit in any way both constitute “criminal activity.”

Unfortunately this opens up a significant opportunity for abuse on the part of law enforcement: if a police officer wishes to stop a car for any reason, the office could easily claim that a defendant failed to signal his or her turn, when, in fact, the defendant did.

This point is often hotly contested in court because the alleged “failure to signal a turn” is used as the basis for the police stop that led to the criminal charges (usually because the stop gave rise to further searches or questioning); if the stop is deemed unlawful, all resulting searches and seizures (the so-called “fruit of the poisonous tree”) are also unlawful.

Making matters worse for defendants is that there is, in practice, little that can be done to disprove these allegations in court, and if the judge has to choose to believe only one version of the story, the judge will believe a police officer  over an individual charged with a crime 99% of the time.

However, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals just affirmed a district court ruling that sided with the defendant in one such case.

Hot Doc: U.S. v. Murphy

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

The case, U.S. v. Murphy, involved defendants Michael Webster and Michael Murphy (the driver and passenger of the vehicle stopped respectively) who were charged with drug offenses.

The defendants were travelling in a car heading eastbound when it was stopped by Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper David Stahl.

Trooper Stahl had been parked in-between the eastbound and westbound lanes of the highway that the defendants were travelling on, and according to Stahl, Webster failed to signal his turn when he exited the highway.

This served as the basis for Stahl’s stop and subsequent search of the defendants’ vehicle (the search revealed 21 kilograms of cocaine).

However, after reviewing “overwhelming physical evidence demonstrating that Trooper Stahl could not have actually observed Webster fail to signal,” the district court ruled that the stop was unlawful, and ordered all evidence arising therefrom suppressed; the appeals court affirmed.

What was this “overwhelming physical evidence?”

Among other things, the distance between Stahl’s vehicle and the exit lane, the topography of the area, and Trooper Stahl’s actual position in the police vehicle (facing the opposite direction as the defendants and viewing the vehicle only through his rearview mirror) made it “impossible” for Stahl to actually witness a failure to signal by Webster.

Although this case certainly represents a decisive victory for criminal defendants and their attorneys, it’s unlikely that Murphy presents a model that can be easily replicated.

This is primarily because there was a mountain of physical evidence that was both available and introduced to support the defendants’ contention that Trooper Stahl could not have witnessed a failure to signal.

Even in cases where the defendant did not fail to signal a turn, there is little to no evidence outside of witness testimony to contest claims to the contrary by law enforcement.

Regardless, this ruling demonstrates that it is still possible to defeat such claims by police officers.