case law update

Ninth Circuit: No Fourth Amendment Requirement to Inform Suspect of Reason for Stop

An investigatory stop may still be lawful even if the officer falsely cites a ground that is not supported by reasonable suspicion as the basis for the stop, the Ninth Circuit recently held.

From authorized wiretap intercepts, officers working with a Drug Enforcement Administration task force learned specific details of a plan to transport methamphetamine from Washington to Minnesota, including details about the identities and appearance of the traffickers, the car they would be driving, and the approximate one-hour window of time they would be passing through Bozeman, Montana.

The officers set up a surveillance operation near Bozeman, and at the top of the estimated one-hour window, they spotted a vehicle that fit the description of the suspect car. An officer followed the suspect car and confirmed the appearance of the driver and passenger fit the physical description of the suspected traffickers, and confirmed the vehicle plate was from a town in Washington associated with the investigation.

Officers then conducted an investigatory stop. Although the officer following the suspect car did not observe any traffic violations, he pulled the vehicle over and told the driver, Hector Magallon-Lopez, that the reason for the stop was Magallon-Lopez’s failure to signal properly before changing lanes.

Officers questioned and detained both occupants of the suspect car and they summoned a drug-detection dog from a nearby sheriff’s office, who positively alerted officers to the presence of drugs in the car. Officers then seized the car and later obtained a search warrant to search it. The search revealed two pounds of methamphetamine hidden in an area beneath the trunk. Magallon-Lopez was subsequently convicted for drug-trafficking violations following a jury trial. He then appealed the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress the drugs found in his car to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

On appeal, Magallon-Lopez challenged the legality of the stop that lead to the search of his car that revealed the drug evidence. He argued that the stop violated his Fourth Amendment rights because the officer who pulled him over deliberately lied when stating the reason for the stop, and the reason the officer gave was not itself supported by reasonable suspicion.

“The standard for determining whether probable cause or reasonable suspicion exists is an objective one,” the Judge Paul Watford wrote for the appeals court in response to Magallon-Lopez’s argument, “it does not turn on the subjective thought processes of the officer or whether the officer is truthful about the reason for the stop.” It went on, “[s]o long as the facts known to the officer establish reasonable suspicion to justify an investigatory stop, the stop is lawful even if the officer falsely cites as the basis for the stop a ground that is not supported by reasonable suspicion.”

But the court emphasized, “although our focus is on the objectively reasonable basis for the stop, not the officers’ subjective intentions or beliefs, the facts justifying the stop must be known to officers at the time of the stop.”

Then finding that officers did have probable cause to seize Magallon-Lopez’s car, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s denial of Magallon-Lopez’s motion to suppress.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Marsha Berzon cautioned that although she agreed with the court’s holding as to the Fourth Amendment issue Magallon-Lopez had raised, she “would not foreclose, in another case, holding that there is a due process (not Fourth Amendment) based right to be informed of the true basis for a stop or arrest…But no such argument was made here.”


Read the full case: United States v. Magallon-Lopes


This case law update was written by James P. Garay Heelan, 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: case law update, search warrant, james p. garay heelan


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