Louisiana Cops Sued After Dash Cam Video Showed They Lied About Why They Performed A Pretextual Stop
Courts have continually said pretextual stops are a cool way to engage in law enforcement fishing expeditions. But there are a few caveats.
First, there needs to be a reason to stop the person, even if that reason exists largely in the imaginative readings of local statutes by police officers. Second, the stop cannot be unreasonably extended past the point of its objective. When you hand out a citation or tell someone they’re free to go, they’re free to go. You can’t keep them detained while trying to find other ways to talk them into warrantless searches.
Finally, when you’re asked to defend your actions in court, your pretext had better hold up. And you had damn well better make sure you’re not recording evidence that contradicts your claims. That’s a fatal error, and one that appears to have beean committed by two Louisiana cops now being sued by the people they pulled over, with the assistance of the Institute for Justice.
Mario Rosales and his girlfriend were driving through Alexandria, Louisiana when cops decided to pull them over. Prior to this stop, Rosales had stopped at a red light, signaled his intent to make a left hand turn, and made a legal left hand turn (with his blinker on) when the light turned green. All of this was dispassionately observed by the dash cam in Officer Samuel Terrell’s SUV.
This is what happened next, as recounted in Rosales’ lawsuit [PDF]:
About 10 seconds after that, the light turned green. With his left turn signal blinking, Mario legally turned left through the intersection, onto Dorchester Drive. The police SUV followed. While the SUV was in the middle of the intersection, the officers activated its lights and pulled Mario and Gracie over.
Contradicted by clear video evidence, the officers would later claim to have pulled the car over for failure to signal.
Mario immediately pulled over and waited in his car. Gracie likewise remained buckled in the car.
Officer Samuel Terrell got out of the SUV and stood at the front of the police vehicle. He told Mario to get out of the car and come to him.
Here’s the clear video evidence. The thing Terrell said was the reason for the stop (failure to signal) is clearly contradicted less than 35 seconds into the recording:
And here’s what followed the bogus stop, as recounted by the Institute for Justice:
Over the next 20 minutes, two police officers searched Mario and interrogated him and his girlfriend—not just about where they live and work, but also about a litany of drugs, past interactions with police, and their feelings about the U.S. Constitution. All without a single reason to believe Mario or Gracie were dangerous or involved in drugs or that either committed any crime whatsoever. They weren’t; they aren’t; and they hadn’t. When Mario and Gracie asked why they had been pulled over, the officers answered that Mario failed to use his turn signal. But multiple recordings of the incident clearly show that Mario used his blinker. When asked why they were questioning Mario and Gracie about drugs, the officers’ answer was they were “just curious.”
A completely unconstitutional stop, followed by an unconstitutional detainment. Multiple recordings show not only that Rosales activated his turn signal, but that it was a clear, bright day and nothing obstructed the officer’s view of Rosales’ car or his turn signal.
The officers also denied Rosales’ request that his girlfriend record the traffic stop. The officers pointed to their body cameras, claiming this was all the recording anyone would need. Rosales logically pointed out he’d like to have his own record of the stop, considering how often recordings by officers go missing after rights have been violated. Rosales’ concern wasn’t theoretical. This had already happened to him.
Mario was criminally assaulted by an off-duty officer in Roswell, New Mexico, in 2018. See Rosales v. Bradshaw et al., 2021 WL 5356668, CIV 20-751 JB/JHR at *3 (D.N.M. Nov. 17, 2021), appeal filed, No. 22 2027 (10th Cir.). Mario could not obtain body camera or dash camera footage from the officer or his employer.
Rosales was allowed to use his phone to access insurance information, showing the cops didn’t fear his possession of his phone. They also had no reason to believe his girlfriend’s access to her phone would pose any threat to them. But they refused to let either of them record this stop.
Twenty-one minutes of bullshit, with the officers refusing to let the couple record the stop, separating them so each officer could pepper them with similar questions about drug possession, continual reminders issued that they had been “legally stopped” (they hadn’t), culminating in one officer’s verbal expression of disappointment when records checks came up clean.
Officer Lewis soon asked Officer Terrell, “So what are you gonna write him for?”
Officer Terrell: “Right now, failure to signal. Uh, since he keeps going back and still has residence in New Mexico … .”
Officer Lewis told Officer Terrell, “I would err on the side of caution on that,” meaning that Officer Terrell should, despite his uncertainty that Mario had violated any registration statutes, cite Mario for not having updated his license and registration to reflect where he stays in Louisiana.
After a pause, Officer Lewis said that he didn’t have a reason to run their dog on Mario’s car and that he “really didn’t see a whole lot of indicators of him [Mario] not being completely truthful.”
Officer Lewis soon advised Officer Terrell, “So yeah I would do the PC to stop and there’s also um, failure to update his ID, and you can go ahead and put failure to register on there, too.”
Dispatch soon radioed the officers to give them the results of the history checks: “Negative all around on both.”
Officer Lewis expressed disappointment: “Aaaw. What are the chances of that?!” He soon reiterated, “Aw man!”
They went fishing and went home with nothing, big or small, to fry. And the only response was disappointment that an unwarranted records check failed to deliver the probable cause needed to excuse the rights violations they officers had already engaged in.
As the lawsuit points out, that’s a lot of violations. A handful of Fourth Amendment violations peppered with First Amendment violations because the officers refused to let the couple record the stop.
The officers will definitely request qualified immunity. They may get a partial reward, depending on how well they can argue that refusing to allow the couple to access their phones was just them ensuring their safety during this stop. But it’s hard to see how they escape the rest. The stated reason for the stop is clearly contradicted by the recording. And everything that happened after that had nothing to do with addressing the alleged traffic violation. In fact, it appears the officers immediately went off-task in hope of having their drug hunches confirmed.
That’s a clear violation of established law and the single thing supporting the initiation of the traffic stop is an undeniable lie. Good luck with that, jackasses. This lawsuit should move forward and these officers will hopefully have to explain to a jury why they decided to violate a bunch of rights rather than allow someone obeying traffic laws to continue driving through their town unmolested.