Monday, January 19, 2009

Crosswalk Puzzle

United States v. Stewart, No. 07-3003-cr (2d Cir. January 8, 2009) (Winter, Miner, Cabranes, CJJ)

Brett Stewart was a passenger in a livery cab that stopped at a red light. Two police officers claimed that the cab’s front wheels ended up in the crosswalk, a traffic violation. They pulled over the cab and recovered a gun from Stewart.

At Stewart’s suppression hearing, the officers gave their account, while the cab driver testified that he stopped before entering the crosswalk, which the district court credited. The court found that the officers had been subject to an optical illusion or distraction; it took judicial notice “of the fact that a stationary object may shift in one’s visual perception as one moves past it [and thus] that an object abutting a straight line may appear to be over that line as an observer moves past and away from that line.” The district court granted the motion, concluding that the police lacked probable cause for the stop and that there was no reasonable suspicion of criminal activity because “a traffic violation for infringing on an intersection does not quality as ‘criminal activity.’”

On the government’s appeal, the circuit reversed, holding that the district court applied the wrong legal standard. A traffic stop “based on reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation comports with the Fourth Amendment.” Neither reasonable suspicion of a crime more serious than a traffic violation nor probable cause is necessary.

On remand, the district court is to determine whether the officers had reasonable suspicion that the cab committed a traffic violation, bearing in mind that “a mistake of fact does not undermine the existence of reasonable suspicion.”

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