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Court of Criminal Appeals: A clean car simply is not suspicious

"When two people in a clean car indicate criminal activity, then the words of John Lennon have come to fruition: 'Strange days indeed -- most peculiar, mama,'" wrote the chief justice of the Seventh Court of Appeals in Amarillo.

That sentiment was echoed by the Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas's highest court for criminal matters, in a recent case. A state trooper had testified at trial that the main reason he focused his attention on a passing minivan was that, in his opinion, it's rare for vehicles in Potter County to be quite so clean.

"So you're telling the court that because you see a van, it's clean and it's got two people in it, that was indicators of potential criminal activity for you?" the judge asked at trial.

"Yes, sir, they are," the trooper answered.

According to his testimony, the trooper then hit the gas to pull up next to the minivan. The driver, believing the trooper meant to pass, pulled over to the furthest edge of the right-hand lane to give the cruiser room. In doing so, he allowed the minivan's tires to touch the white stripe on the edge of the lane.

This, the trooper (wrongly) took to be a violation of the law justifying a traffic stop and, ultimately, a full search of the minivan. That search included a probe inside the minivan's spare tire, where 400 grams of methamphetamine was found.

The Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the entire encounter as violating the minivan driver's Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.

Apparently, prosecutors were highly motivated by the 400 amount of methamphetamine. Despite what seems a straightforward case of 4th Amendment violations, they filed multiple appeals on every aspect of the rulings by lower courts.

"We have kicked the can down the road long enough," concluded the three-judge panel. "It is time that we dispose of the core issue here, which is whether, under the totality of these circumstances, the trooper had an objectively reasonable basis to stop Cortez's vehicle. We hold that he did not."

Law enforcement and other agents of the government cannot stop you or search you for just any reason. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. The typical remedy for Fourth Amendment violations is suppression of the evidence at trial.

If you have been arrested or searched for no good cause, don't discuss the incident with the police. Instead, contact an attorney right away in order to protect your rights.

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