Update January 9th: KSL has posted a news video which includes a 22-minute Dashcam Video of the traffic stop. Updated post HERE.
The Federal racial profiling suit filed by Sherida Felders, despite the plaintiff's obvious anti-white bias on the surface, has opened up some legitimate questions about the Fourth Amendment and police searches. Specifically, when can police search a vehicle without a warrant? And on January 4th, 2009, the Salt Lake Tribune recorded the opinions of three different attorneys, one of who is Felders' lawyer.
To recap the incident, discussed in greater detail in this previous post, Sherida Felders admits she was speeding as she traveled on Interstate 15 on November 20th, 2008, but claims the search by a Utah Highway Patrol officer of her Jeep Commander for drugs was based on racial profiling. She and her two teenage passengers, all blacks, were detained for 2 1/2 hours while UHP searched the vehicle for drugs. First, a police dog was used, but when the dog failed to alert, the UHP trooper took the next step and physcially searched the interior of the vehicle itself. Felders claims some chronic medical conditions were aggravated because of the protracted search, and so she's filed suit. A UHP spokesman says the agency is reviewing the allegations and had started an internal investigation before the lawsuit was filed. No drugs were found during the search.
-- Civil cover sheet
-- Copy of lawsuit
-- Complaint filed by Felders
The two Salt Lake City attorneys who are not involved in the case said law-enforcement officers must have a reason to believe a crime has occurred before they can do more than issue a ticket. Civil rights lawyer Brian Barnard said a stop has to be justified in the first place, meaning officers must have a reasonable suspicion that a driver is committing a traffic offense. Once the initial purpose for a stop is concluded, the motorist must be allowed to depart unless the officer has probable cause to suspect other illegal activity, such as spotting a gun inside the car or any illegal item in plain view, such as drugs or an open container of an alcoholic beverage. Neverthelss, absent some illegal conduct or circumstances, that alone would not justify a search of the entire vehicle without a warrant. And consent must be freely given.
Clayton Simms, a criminal defense attorney, said police must focus on the crime that led to the stop in the first place. If other evidence surfaces after a stop, such as the smell of alcohol on the driver's breath, officers can put the motorist through sobriety tests. He also said whether a stop exceeds its scope depends on a number of factors, such as the reason for stopping the driver, the length of the detention, the extent of the search and the number of officers involved.
Attorney Robert Sykes, who represents Felders, has acknowledged that I-15 is a popular route for drug smugglers, but said there was no reason to believe his client was one of them. He said the trooper did not have a warrant or Felders' permission to search the vehicle and no emergency circumstances existed -- such as destruction of evidence or danger to the public -- to justify a warrantless search.
But what hasn't been addressed at length is how Felders and the two teenagers behaved during the traffic stop. Many teenagers in general, and black teenagers in particular, are notorious for copping an attitude when dealing with authority. Felders claims they behaved properly during the prolonged stop, but what's their definition of "proper"? It's quite possible that the two teens may have mouthed off to the cop during the stop. This would not excuse unprofessional police behavior, but might cause the cop to become more suspicious and investigate more fully and vigorously.
Here's a YouTube video demonstrating how both police and the public should behave during a traffic stop:
Some additional understanding of the police perspective on traffic stops is in order. Posts in this particular cop discussion thread provide additional insight into the mindset of cops on traffic stops. It shows that cops are trained to consider the traffic stop to be the most potentially dangerous encounter, simply because of its unpredictability. Consequently, it is incumbent upon the citizen to behave in such a fashion as to demonstrate that the citizen poses NO IMMEDIATE THREAT to the personal safety of a police officer.
While dragging the race card into this situation is despicable, it should not blind us to the possibility that a very real violation of the Fourth Amendment may have occurred in this case.