case law update

Tenth Circuit: Officers Violated a § 1983 Plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment Rights

Officers violated a § 1983 plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights when they relied on his Colorado state residency as justification for continuing a traffic stop and searching his vehicle for drugs, the Tenth Circuit held this week.

On December 16, 2011, Kansas Highway Patrol Officers Richard Jimerson and Dax Lewis saw Peter Vasquez’s 1992 BMW sedan driving eastbound on I-70. Jimerson could not read the temporary tag on Vasquez’s car, so he turned on his emergency lights and Vasquez pulled to the side of the road. Jimerson approached the car, observed blankets and a pillow in the front passenger seat and back of the car, and asked Vasquez where he was going. Vasquez said he was on his way to Elkton, Maryland, and stated he was originally from Colorado, but had just moved to Maryland.

Lewis then spoke to Vasquez while Jimerson checked driver’s license and proof of insurance in the patrol car. Lewis checked in with Jimerson and told him Vasquez “look[ed] all scared to death.” Suspecting Vasquez was transporting illegal drugs, Jimerson called another officer to bring a trained drug dog.

After issuing a warning and walking away, Lewis returned and inquired if he could ask a couple more questions, to which Vasquez consented. Lewis asked if there were any drugs in the vehicle, which Vasquez denied. Lewis then asked if he could search the car and Vasquez refused. After the refusal, Lewis said that he suspected Vasquez was “probably involved in a little criminal activity here,” and detained him. The drug dog arrived about fifteen minutes later, and the officers’ subsequent search of the BMW did not reveal anything illegal.

Vasquez subsequently filed a §1983 action against the officers, arguing they violated his Fourth Amendment rights by detaining him and searching his car without reasonable suspicion. The district court granted the officers’ motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity, and Vasquez appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit considered whether the officers had reasonable suspicion to justify the search of Vasquez’s car. The officers argued the following factors created reasonable suspicion: (1) Vasquez was driving alone late at night; (2) he was travelling on I-70, “a known drug corridor; (3) he was from Colorado and was driving from Aurora, Colorado, “a drug source area”; (4) the back seat did not contain items the officers expected to see in the car of someone moving across the country; (5) the items in his back seat were covered and obscured from view; (6) he had a blanket and pillow in his car; (7) he was driving an older car, despite having insurance for a newer one; (8) there were fresh fingerprints on his trunk; and (9) he seemed nervous. The court held such conduct “is hardly suspicious” or “particularly unusual.”

Focusing on the officers’ “heav[y]” reliance on the fact Vasquez was from Colorado, “known to be home to medical marijuana dispensaries,” the court said such a factor is “so broad as to be indicative of almost nothing.” On that point, the court observed that twenty-five states permit marijuana use for medical purposes and that to condone the officers’ reasoning “would justify the search and seizure of citizens of more than half of the states in our country.” And the court “cannot think of a scenario in which a combination of otherwise innocent factors becomes suspicious because the individual is from one of the aforementioned twenty-five states or the District of Columbia.”

The Tenth Circuit thus held the officers violated Vasquez’s Fourth Amendment rights, and then held that they did so in violation of clearly established law. The appeals court therefore reversed the judgment of the district court and remanded for further proceedings.

Read the full case: Vasquez v. Lewis, et al


This case law update was written by Michael J. Sgarlat, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update

Tags: Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA, case law update, seventh circuit, james p. garay heelan

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