Montana Supreme Court unanimously convicts a potter, saying police stopped the defendant for no good reason – because.com

During a 2017 trip to Montana, Huang Vin Pham was heating a bowl of noodles at a Conoco station on Interstate 94 when he looked out the window and saw something unusual: a police van loaded with half a ton of marijuana. At the same time, Richard Smith, a Montana Division of Criminal Investigations (DCI) agent who was helping two state soldiers transport marijuana to evidence storage in Billings, entered the gas station to use the restroom and buy some water. Smith thought Fame looked suspiciously at the van for a long time, which led Smith to wonder if Fame might be involved in criminal activity.

That conspiracy eventually led to an investigation that found 19 pounds of marijuana in the trunk of a farm car, an arrest for possession with intent to distribute, and a 15-year prison sentence. But according to the Montana Supreme Court, which unanimously convicted Farm 2019 last week, Smith’s idea was not enough to justify arresting and grilling Farm, which required “special suspicion” based on “objective information and clear information”. [an officer] Some may make reasonable assumptions. “

Smith saw this, he did not need to satisfy that test, because after his initial interaction with the farm followed him outside the gas pump, not only voluntarily “very amicable”. It did not qualify as a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment, the state argued, because a reasonable person would feel free to shorten the conversation and leave.

Pham, who speaks mainly Vietnamese and has some difficulty with English, saw things differently. Smith and two soldiers “didn’t let me go anywhere,” he testified at a pretrial suppression hearing. “They put me there, and they dragged me even though I tried to pump the gas.”

Although Smith was “aware that Vietnamese culture teaches respect to the police,” he said he did not feel the need to tell Pham that he could go. He further testified that “he did not believe that the language barrier affected the understanding of the form.”

The Montana Supreme Court thought Farm’s portrayal of the situation was true, when the government’s pressing credibility:

When a reasonable person in the farm’s position asked multiple law enforcement officers to search his car, he did not feel comfortable leaving. Two of the officers were armed and wearing uniforms; Agent Smith was clearly a plainclothes law enforcement officer because he was armed and showed visible law enforcement identification. The interruption of repeated questions by Agent Smith and Trooper Kilpeller is unimaginable as a mere “friendly” and passive conversation, and could not go unnoticed. Those who volunteer will discuss their plans, their families, their travels, and whether they have any “guns, knives,… drugs.” [or] Child Pornography ” [with] What if three strangers aren’t police officers and they believe they can’t go? The only credible explanation for this “amicable” conversation was that Pham knew he had to answer questions, knew he was being investigated, and knew he just couldn’t get away.

In light of that reality, it took more than form’s apparent interest in a police van full of containers to justify Smith’s investigation. Smith admitted that he was “aware of several arrests of Vietnamese for drug trafficking traveling between Washington and Minnesota along DCI I-94,” although he denied that his suspicions had anything to do with Pham’s ethnicity. “Based on this little information,” the court said, “we do not see any objective information or consequential suspicion to justify Agent Smith’s possession of the form.” Since “no objective information supports Agent Smith’s assessment that the form was suspicious,” it concludes, “the seizure of his form was unconstitutional accordingly.”

Because Fame’s detention was illegal, the investigation found evidence that was used to convict him. The court therefore did not need to consider the rationale of the state’s claim that Pham had agreed to search his car. But just as it is hard to believe that Pham would have submitted to Smith’s interrogation if he thought he was free to leave, it is hard to believe that Pham would have allowed such a search that he knew if he understood that he was not free.

The case, like many others, casts doubt on the legal myth that courts often call for when they support a police stop resulting in the convict being convicted. As long as the police have no legal reason to detain someone, the Supreme Court has said, they are free to investigate other matters. They can ask whatever they want, in the theory that people can always refuse to answer.

The police can ask questions even when a driver is conceptually free to go, at which point there is no obligation to tell him that any further cooperation is optional. Fourth Amendment cases also often feature motorists who presumably agreed to let the police search their vehicles, even though they knew they would go to jail. For the reasons illustrated by Farm’s encounter with Smith, it is difficult to take seriously any of these ideas when one is truly volunteering when people confront the state’s armed agents.

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