A police stop in the middle of the night in remote southern Colorado that turned up methamphetamine did not violate the defendant's constitutional rights, the state Supreme Court ruled on Monday.
“Although this is a close call, we ultimately conclude that the court erred,” wrote Justice A. Samour, Jr. for the Supreme Court, reversing a district judge’s interpretation of the law.
Huerfano County Sheriff’s Deputy Morgan Chapman was driving just outside Walsenburg in November 2019. Around 3 a.m., he saw a Subaru turn onto a county road, which aroused his suspicions because he had never seen a car in that location “at that time of night,” he later said.
Chapman called for backup from a captain and another deputy. In the meantime, he located the Subaru on private property near a stock tank and windmill. Concerned about the occupants potentially poaching game or tampering with the equipment, Chapman approached the vehicle, which had its lights turned off. Suddenly, the driver illuminated the lights and reversed. Chapman activated his patrol lights and the car halted.
When the second deputy arrived, the two sheriff’s employees approached the vehicle, whereupon Chapman noticed a white substance on the dashboard that was possibly methamphetamine. He also observed a bag containing a similar substance in the shoe of the vehicle’s passenger, Walter Wheeler.
After receiving a patdown for weapons, Wheeler acknowledged the narcotics, and a search of the vehicle revealed 38.5 grams of the substance plus $4,700 in cash.
Prosecutors charged Wheeler with drug offenses, but he moved to disqualify the methamphetamine evidence, deeming it a violation of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. The Huerfano County District Court judge agreed, finding the deputies had no “reasonable and articulable suspicion” to stop the vehicle.
The prosecution appealed directly to the Colorado Supreme Court in accordance with state law that allows for such a maneuver when the ruling in question involves a “substantial part of the proof of the charge pending against the defendant.”
The type of investigatory stop performed on the Subaru required a lesser degree of suspicion, compared to the probable cause needed to effectuate an arrest. The U.S. Supreme Court has established parameters for investigatory stops, including that officers must have reasonable suspicion that a crime was or is about to be committed.
Samour explained that the justices took into account all of the circumstances surrounding the vehicle stop. The district court believed the deputy's only cause for suspicion was seeing the Subaru turn down a road that vehicles seldom traveled at that time of night.
“Wheeler wasn’t seized until Deputy Chapman activated his patrol car’s emergency equipment and stopped the Subaru,” Samour wrote. “By then, the deputies had acquired knowledge of additional facts.”
The additional circumstances preceding the search included the location of the parked vehicle, the fact that the driver turned off the lights, the vehicle’s sudden reversal, and the deputy’s concern for poaching during hunting season.
“Though not an easy call, we conclude that the totality of these circumstances and the rational inferences that may be drawn therefrom sufficed to provide the deputies reasonable and articulable suspicion to believe that the occupants of the Subaru had committed, were committing, or were about to commit poaching or tampering with property,” Samour wrote.
While acknowledging that prosecutors presented no evidence of nighttime hunting in the area, the Supreme Court noted that they were not required to, and that the credibility of the deputy’s testimony was not disputed.
Aya Gruber, a professor of law at the University of Colorado, acknowledged that while it was the trial court's responsibility to assess the deputy's actions, it was plausible that he had no clear reason for thinking the Subaru was suspicious. The court, she said, appeared to give law enforcement permission to label such actions as driving down a road at odd hours or backing away from a police car as indicators of possible wrongdoing.
"In other words, while acknowledging this is a close case, the court put its imprimatur on the logic that if your purpose for being somewhere isn’t apparent, you are up to no good and that if you don’t immediately embrace police presence in your life, you’re likely a criminal," she said.
Gruber added that while other courts have arrived at similar decisions, and thus the Supreme Court's ruling is unsurprising, "I think another thing that has people protesting in the streets is how clear it is becoming (from video evidence) that police lie to justify unconstitutional seizures, and courts tend to believe police unconditionally."
The court reversed the suppression order. The case is People v. Wheeler.
This story has been updated with comment from Aya Gruber.