“One may well ask: How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others? The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but, a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Imagine a perfect society, where the population had a standard set of rules and followed them.
In that perfect society, everyone knew the rules down to a specific science hence, they knew how to obey said rules. Unfortunately in our time, we do not have a perfect society. Our civilization has lost the knowledge of their rights unless either; a.) laws were broken by an individual or b.) the individual is studying or examining criminal law. Either way, our society unknowingly forfeits their rights in certain situations. On the other hand, there are law enforcement officers who have sworn to uphold these rights to obtain their position.
Some do not know themselves, when they have crossed the line of duty or violated a right. It is up to us to break down and identify the validity and righteousness of the “Officer Smith & The Gold Pontiac” situation we are presented with.
Reasonable suspicion is “a standard used in criminal procedure, more relaxed than probable cause, that can justify less-intrusive searches. A reasonable suspicion exists when a reasonable person under the circumstances, would, based upon specific and articulable facts, suspect that a crime has been committed (Reasonable Suspicion, Cornell Law School Library ).” Officer Smith pulled over a gold, older model Pontiac because she noticed tape on what she suspected to be broken. One might wonder why Officer Smith pulled the Pontiac over. In most states, the driver is held accountable for faulty equipment of their vehicle. Unless the tape is red, reflective and transparent, an officer has every right to pull the driver over and issue a ticket. In my own experience, it is highly likely for a police officer to pull someone over if there was an obstruction of a head or taillight. I myself have been pulled over for something similar in which I received a warning or ticket. On her way to the driver’s window, Officer Smith remembers the description of a vehicle that was recently involved in a roadside killing of another police officer.
That description fit with the Pontiac she had just pulled over. Officer Smith proceeds to ask the driver to get out of the vehicle so she may conduct a quick pat down for weapons. According to the Fourth Amendment, a justifiable search begins with reasonable suspicion. In this case, Officer Smith asks the driver to endure a “stop and frisk”. This means, the officer had the right to ask for a quick pat down of the driver’s outer clothing in search of a weapon(s). In my belief, the driver’s rights were not violated and valid based on the officer’s request for a stop and frisk. Nothing illegal has happened between the two. “If, during the pat down for weapons, the officer feels a weapon on the individual, the officer then has probable cause to conduct a complete search.” (Roberson, Wallace & Stuckey, 2007; p.83)
In our example, a weapon was not felt or found on the driver. Furthermore, Officer Smith has now conducted what’s known as a “Terry Stop”. What is the difference between a Terry Stop and the Stop and Frisk you ask? There isn’t any significant difference. Prior to “Terry Vs. Ohio” (1968), a stop and frisk protected against illegitimate search and seizure. Where as after, it is come to be known as; constitutional according to circumstances where a reasonably suspicious officer has a valid concern for societies or his/her safety. After the Terry Stop, Officer Smith directed the driver to have a seat in the vehicle and asks for their driver license and registration. I would think that this procedure is pretty standard in identifying who the driver is and maybe writing out a ticket for the taillight tape. The driver had other plans and speeds away from Officer Smith without giving requested information. It is to my knowledge that Officer Smith has more than reasonable suspicion now. She has probable cause to believe that the driver was in fact, the killer from the incident she’d heard about.
With probable cause, Officer Smith proceeds to chase the Pontiac. The chase ends when the driver of the Pontiac hits a telephone pole. You may stop to ask me; “What is the difference between probable cause and reasonable suspicion?” From my understanding of the two, probable cause is grounds for a warrant or for an arrest. Reasonable suspicion is not but, it may be grounds to further investigate or for a police officer to detain a person or vehicle for further investigation (Florida State University Law Review, Summer (2006), Vol. 33, Issue 4, 1239-1248). I’m compelled to agree with officer Smith in this instance. The driver demonstrated reckless behavior, presenting exigent circumstances for Officer Smith to give chase to this vehicle. According to The Cornell Law Library, an exigent circumstance is “a circumstance that requires an immediate response.
It occurs when police officers believe they have probable cause and there is no time to obtain a warrant. (Exigent Circumstance), Cornell Law School Library )” Being that the chase ended with a severe crash, Officer Smith did respond immediately to the situation. Furthermore, our scenario goes on to explain that Officer Smith feared that the car might catch on fire from the leaking gas tank. She pulls out the driver from the vehicle and goes back to get her purse for identification. It is then that Officer Smith sees that the glove box has popped open and in it was a firearm with documents on top of it. We are asked to think about if the firearm was in plain view and if it was legally obtained? Since I am just a Criminal Justice student, I would have to say affirmative to both. I say that in full confidence because it is legal for an officer to enter a vehicle at the scene of an accident to assist without an issued search warrant. Without rummaging through the vehicles contents, the officer sees a weapon or narcotics. Even with the use of a flashlight, it is still considered legal.
Just because something is hidden behind darkness, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be seen during daylight, right? The other permissible circumstance regarding the plain view doctrine is, if the officer moves him or herself around to take a look. The object in plain view (without a thorough search) can be seized and is admissible evidence in court. The fact that the gun was seen through the documentation clearly shows that it was in plain view and didn’t have to be searched for. Officer Smith goes on to find the driver’s purse. In an attempt to locate the driver’s identification, she finds a baggie of Marijuana in the driver’s purse. Although I do not believe that this will uphold as evidence in this case, it may present the driver with another set of charges against her. Perhaps the driver may get charged with possession of an illegal substance?
However, I really feel that Officer Smith did not have the right to search for anything other than the drivers license, even though she did find the Marijuana in the purse. In my studies it would be considered “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree”. Although Officer Smith was legally allowed to enter the vehicle without a search warrant and assist in identifying the driver, I believe that the retrieval of the cannabis will not be permissible in court for the reasons I’ve stated above. Our scenario also goes on to state that it was later found that this vehicle was not the vehicle involved in the death of the officer. It also states that it was determined that the taillight was not in fact broken.
One might question or argue at this point, whether the entire scenario is justifiable or necessary? From my point of view it was entirely correct. The officer had a valid reason to pull the car over. She had reasonable suspicion for a Terry Stop. Her reasonable suspicion then turned to probable cause when the driver fled the sight without presenting the officer with what she’d asked for. The officer then acted within a responsible manner to help the driver out of the crashed vehicle. After all, law enforcement is there to “protect and serve” our community. The firearm was in plain sight of the officer while she tried to locate the driver’s identification. Nothing except the search and seizure of the contents of the purse violated the rights of the driver; nor incriminated the police officer.
It is in my belief that Officer Smith could’ve called for backup or help once she found the scene of the accident. She could’ve taken the purse out of the vehicle and even seized the gun. However, she had time to obtain a warrant to search the purse. In instances like we have just gone through, it is interesting to see just how knowledgeable each player is with their rights and responsibilities. We see these cases often in the news and some do not even make it to trial because either a right was violated or a piece of evidence was gathered with some mistake made in obtaining it. “Don’t interfere with anything in the Constitution. That must be maintained, for it is the only safeguard of our liberties.”- President Abraham Lincoln
Exigent Circumstance [Def.1], In Legal Information Institute, Cornell Univeristy Law School Libarary. Retrieved February 13, 2013, from
Plain View Doctrine [Def.1], In Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School Library. Retrieved February 15, 2013, from http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/plain_view_doctrine
Reasonable Suspicion [Def.1]. In Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School Library. Retrieved February 13, 2013, from http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/reasonable_suspicion
Stuckey, G., Roberson, C., & Wallace, H., (2006). Procedures in the Justice System (8th Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.
Florida State University Law Review, Summer (2006), Vol. 33, Issue 4, 1239-1248, Retrieved February 14, 2013, from http://www.heinonline.org.lib.kaplan.edu/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/flsulr33&div=61