The Decision From Hell (Part 1)

December 27, 2011

The Kentucky State Court of Appeals issued its decision affirming Crane Station’s conviction on January 21, 2011. Her motion for reconsideration was summarily denied without an explanation. Her motion for discretionary review is pending in the Kentucky State Supreme Court.

I call the 3-0 opinion written by written by Judge Lambert and joined by judges Henry and Taylor the decision from hell and will now take it apart. First, here is a link to the decision.

The Court begins by making two fundamental errors that invalidate the conclusion it reached affirming the circuit court’s denial of the motion to suppress evidence. The two errors are:

(1) It relied on after-acquired information, including trial testimony and the dispatcher’s tape, which is prohibited by the United States Supreme Court and the Kentucky Supreme Court; and

(2) It stated that the appellant had failed to challenge any of the findings of fact in the three suppression orders, which is absolutely false.

In United States v. Hensley, the Supreme Court held that trial courts must decide the constitutional validity of investigatory stops of civilians by police officers (i.e., whether there was reasonable suspicion or probable cause to justify the stop) based on the information available to the police officer before the stop. Information acquired after the stop cannot be used to justify a stop that was not supported by reasonable suspicion or probable cause because that would eliminate the rule.

The Supreme Court also held in Hensley that, even if a police officer stops a suspect acting in good faith on mistaken information provided by a dispatcher, the stop nevertheless violates the Fourth Amendment, if the correct information did not constitute a reasonable suspicion.

Therefore, the proper legal analysis under Hensley is to determine whether the information supplied by the 911 caller constituted a reasonable suspicion to justify the stop. The caller said,

And there is a lady in a dark blue looks like a Buick LeSabre. I’d say it’s a late 80s, early ’90s model. And I’ve got a license plate number. But she’s out here walking around in my neighbor’s yard and everything and writing stuff down, and she’d talked to him and mentioned something about tar heroin and all that stuff.

The caller did not describe suspicious activity, much less criminal activity. He described a conversation between his neighbor and a stranger in which the stranger mentioned the word heroin. So what?

This is not complicated. Absent information that the caller witnessed a purchase or sale of a controlled substance, or possibly a request to purchase or sell a controlled substance, there is nothing to investigate.

A reasonable suspicion is more than a mere hunch or suspicion. The hunch or suspicion must be reasonable. That is, it must be supported by articulable objective facts and circumstances that would warrant a reasonable person to conclude that a crime has been committed, is being committed, or is about to be committed. That did not happen.

Now, the stop would violate the Fourth Amendment, even if the dispatcher had innocently altered what the caller said and told the deputy that the caller had reported witnessing a drug transaction between his neighbor and a stranger and the officer stopped the stranger to investigate.

Why? Because the dispatcher cannot create a reasonable suspicion that did not already exist, even if the dispatcher does so by committing an innocent mistake. In other words, good faith reliance on mistaken information provided innocently by a dispatcher cannot create a reasonable suspicion where none existed. Therefore, the dispatcher’s information is irrelevant under Hensley.

But even if we consider what the dispatcher said, there still is no reasonable suspicion. He said,

Suspicious person complaint, the 4000 block of Queensway Drive off of Lester Harris and Bottom Street. A white female in a dark blue LeSabre that’s out walking around asking people about 218A.

(218A is a reference to the Kentucky State Uniform Controlled Substances Act)

Again, so what? A person walking around asking people about a drug statute is not illegal activity.

I am not saying that the caller’s tip should not have been investigated. I am saying that the proper procedure would have been to contact and interview the caller to obtain additional information regarding what he observed, which the deputy did the following day. However, even if the caller provided additional information such as, “I saw the woman buy some heroin from my neighbor,” the information could not be considered for the purpose of determining whether the deputy had a reasonable suspicion to stop Crane Station because he acquired that information after he stopped her. Therefore, it is irrelevant.

But the caller did not say anything like that. He said,

On 6-28-2006, a Lady driven a Buick LeSabre stoped at my driveway and ask me if I would sell 2 berrlles and i said they belong to my Naber. She had her painst unbuttoned and unzipped. She acted like she was under the Influence of something. She was a dirty Blonde wereing Blue shirt and Blue Jeans. (Spelling and grammatical errors in the original)

(incidentally, her jeans were not unbuttoned and unzipped in the in-dash video)

Asking someone if they are willing to sell two barrels is not criminal activity. (The barrels were made out of oak and split in half across the middle so they could be placed on a deck and used as planters) In addition, the statement does not mention heroin or any other drug. Finally, the description he provided and the conclusion that she appeared to be high on something falls far short of “sufficient articulable objective facts and circumstances that would warrant a reasonable person in concluding that the person had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime.”

Also, since the caller provided the statement after he knew about the arrest, his perspective would have necessarily changed and we cannot know whether he would have said the same thing, if he had been interviewed before the stop. The bottom line is this information should not have been considered.

Additional information that came to light at subsequent pretrial hearings or the trial itself would, of course, also be irrelevant on the issue of reasonable suspicion because it would have been after-acquired. Therefore, to the extent that the Circuit Court and later the Court of Appeals relied on such information to enter findings of fact, such findings are necessarily invalid, as a matter of law under Hensley.

A consideration of the deputy’s observations of Crane Station’s driving prior to the stop is not prohibited by Hensley. To find out what he observed, the Circuit Court should have watched and listened to the deputy testify at the suppression hearing and the Court of Appeals should have watched the video and read the transcript of his testimony at the suppression hearing. Evidently the judges did not do this because the deputy testified that her driving was exemplary, she violated no laws, and he pulled her over as soon as he realized that she and her vehicle matched the description provided by the caller. He did not pull her over because of her driving; he admitted that he pulled her over because he suspected she possessed heroin.

The deputy was the only witness at the suppression hearing. Therefore, there were no disputed facts. No he-said-she-said differences for the trial judge to resolve. He merely had to enter findings of fact based on what the witness said, but he did not do that.

Instead, he made-up some facts, such as Crane Station initiated a voluntary citizen-police contact that is not subject to the Fourth Amendment, when the deputy testified that he pulled her over. He also relied on trial testimony, which was after-acquired information, including testimony by the deputy that directly and materially contradicted his testimony at the suppression hearing.

It is difficult to know what the hell was going on when the deputy and the trial judge were making stuff up.

The Court of Appeals added to the mess by ruling that the appellant is stuck with the invalid findings of fact because she did not challenge them on appeal. That is absurd because her lawyer challenged all of the materially false facts. There is no doubt. Read her opening and reply briefs, if you do not want to take my word for it.

Finally, the Court of Appeals ignored Hensley. Ignored Crane’s argument that the HGN should not have been considered because it was improperly administered. Concluded that despite “not driving erratically or weaving” and passing a portable breath test, the invalid HGN, when considered together with nervousness, glassy eyes, her admission that she was taking prescribed Clonazepam, and other unspecified “odd behavior,” the deputy had probable cause to arrest. Apparently, despite quoting the product insert warning for Conazepam, which does not say that people who take the drug should never operate machinery or a motor vehicle the Court of Appeals believes that, as a matter of law, a police officer has probable cause to arrest anyone who takes the drug and operates a motor vehicle whether they drive properly or not. The Court also ignored federal and state cases cited by Crane’s lawyer, which hold that nervousness is not a valid or reliable indicator of impairment because people who are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol typically also exhibit nervousness when stopped. They require additional evidence of evasive behavior to establish probable cause to arrest and there was no evidence of that in Crane’s case.

So, did the judges on the Court of Appeals read her briefs?

Difficult to conclude that they did, because I do not see how they could honestly claim that her lawyer failed to challenge any findings of fact, if they had read it.

On the other hand, if they wrote an opinion affirming the conviction without having read her briefs, they should be defrocked and disbarred.

Either way, they have a lot of splainin’ to do.

I will deal with the rest of the Decision From Hell in Part 2 tomorrow.

Until then, Court will be in recess.


The Curious Case of the Three Suppression Orders

November 23, 2011

Author’s note: This diary is part of the Frog Gravy legal case and will be posted in three parts beginning today and ending on Thursday, which is Thanksgiving. In this part I explain basic pretrial legal procedure that is common in criminal cases. Specifically, I explain suppression hearings, which most of you probably have heard about, but might not know some of the finer details. This information will be helpful to understanding the incredibly bizarre events that followed; events that will be the subject of the next two parts. Now, get comfortable, buckle your sealtbelt, and get ready for your ride down the rabbit hole.

If you have not already done so, I recommend you watch the embedded video, in which a 16-year-old white girl is ordered to stand trial for murder as a 300-pound black man, to get yourself in the proper frame of mind. And, now here is The Curious Case of the Three Suppression Orders

The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. The exclusionary rule prohibits the prosecution from using evidence against a defendant, if that evidence was seized by police in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

A suppression hearing is a pretrial hearing in which a defendant asks the court to suppress evidence that the prosecution intends to introduce at trial against the defendant. If the court grants the request and orders the evidence suppressed, the prosecution is prohibited from introducing it or referring to it during the trial.

Suppression hearings are held before trial to resolve legal issues relating to the admissibility of evidence allegedly seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment, because in many cases, especially drug cases, the prosecution would be unable to try the case, if the court were to order the evidence suppressed. If that were to happen, the prosecution would be forced to dismiss the case and there would be no need for a trial.

Normally, a court issues a written order granting or denying the motion to suppress and sets forth findings of fact and conclusions of law that support the order. Findings of fact, as the term implies, are findings regarding what happened. They are the facts of the case upon which the conclusions of law must be based.

For example, let us suppose that Archie testified that a traffic light was green and Gillian testified that it was red. Whether the light was green or red would be a disputed fact and the judge would have to find as fact one or the other. If both witnesses agreed that the light was red, that would be an undisputed fact and the judge would have to find as fact that the light was red.

Normally, there is only one suppression order and it is entered before the scheduled trial date. Usually, the prevailing party drafts the order and provides opposing counsel with a copy. If opposing counsel agrees to the proposed order, the trial court will enter it as an agreed order without a hearing, unless the judge wants to change something. When that happens, the judge will schedule a hearing to finalize the order. The prosecutor, defense counsel, and the defendant appear for the hearing, hash out their differences, and the judge makes a final ruling. In other words, the process is transparent and ex parte contact with the judge (by one lawyer without the other present) is prohibited.

When suppression orders are appealed, the appellate courts review challenged findings of fact to determine if they are “clearly erroneous.” That is, unsupported by any evidence. Appellate courts uniformly refuse to second-guess a trial court’s challenged finding of fact, as long as there is some evidence to support it, even if the appellate judges might personally disagree with the trial court. Their reluctance to second-guess the trial court is based on the well-founded notion that they are not in as good a position to judge witness credibility since they were not present when the witness testified.

Conclusions of law are reviewed de novo. That is, they are reviewed anew without any deference to the trial court.

Crane-Station’s lawyer filed a motion, which is a formal request, to suppress all of the evidence seized by police after she was pulled over while driving down the highway and arrested for driving under the influence of drugs. Her lawyer argued for suppression on the grounds that:

1. The stop violated the Fourth Amendment because police pulled her over without a reasonable suspicion to believe that she had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime; and even if they did have a reasonable suspicion;

2. The subsequent arrest violated the Fourth Amendment because police lacked probable cause to believe that she had committed a crime.
The suppression hearing took place on November 27, 2006. Only one witness testified, Deputy Eddie McGuire of the McCracken County Sheriff’s Department.

We have already recounted his testimony in some detail and will not repeat it here, except to briefly summarize and note that there were no disputed facts, since he was the only witness who testified. Therefore, it should have been relatively easy for a sentient being, especially an educated judge who took an oath to uphold the Constitution and impartially follow the law, to come up with a set of findings of fact that were supported by the evidence.

Alas, it was not to be.

To be continued

Cross posted at Firedoglake/MyFDL and the Smirking Chimp.


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