Tuesday, May 17, 2011

'Totality of circumstances' or 'unbridled discretion?'

Test for reasonable suspicion:

"An officer may make an investigatory stop if he is aware of specific, articulable facts which, together with objective and reasonable inferences, form a basis for suspecting that the particular person detained is engaged in criminal activity. The officer must consider the 'totality of circumstances-- the whole picture'. The facts are to be interpreted in the light of a trained officer's experience. They must, however, be more than the mere subjective impressions of a particular officer. Permissible deductions or rational inferences must be grounded in objective facts and be capable of rational explanation; 'while an officer may evaluate the facts supporting reasonable suspicion in light of his experience, experience may not be used to give the officers unbridled discretion in making a stop." U.S. v. Hernandez-Alvarado, 9th Cir. (1989), 891 F.2d 1414.

The so-called 'totality of circumstances' test that was elaborated in U.S. v. Sokolow (1989), 490 U.S. 1 and was later affirmed in U.S. v. Arvizu (2002), 534 U.S. 266, allows officers/courts to add up a number of seemingly innocuous and innocent factors to create 'reasonable suspicion' of criminal activity. In fact, 'totality of factors' is the most favorite term of the law enforcement. It is really bootstrapping and subversion of the principles of Fourth Amendment. If each of the factors described by the officer is susceptible of innocent explanation, how can their mathematical add-up amount to criminal activity? The process though was not meant to be that simple. Supposedly, the whole process of adding-up and deductive analysis should be rational, not subjective and grounded on specific facts. Officers experienced in the field of testimony come to court with formulas, ready stories. It simply shocks me how often they offer the same story, same terminology, same pattern of conduct and same analysis over and over again. They are trained to amalgamate the facts into their formulas. Facts that happen in the real world are subservient to their training and they analyze those facts, if they have such capacity, through the lens of their training, experience and policies. Experienced officers never just relate or recite the facts as they happened. They only tell those facts that they believe should have happened... It amazes me how many times when I ask an officer a specific question regarding the incident, he starts off by saying, 'I usually do this...' or 'It is my custom/practice to do this...' I repeat my question, 'I am not interested in what you usually do... What did you do on this particular occasion when arresting my client?' Often they say, 'I don't specifically recall.' They don't recall because they are trained like automatons not to recall what exactly happened but only what should have happened.

If you are supposed to read Miranda rights before questioning someone in custody, you usually do that. But did you do it on this occasion?

If you are supposed to formulate the facts amounting to reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before and at the stop, did you do it on this occasion? Did you simply find out those facts after the stop but wrote in your report as if you knew them before the stop?

Officer experience and training then drive the whole Fourth Amendment analysis. Their credibility, highly suspect, as very biased witnesses, is accorded a lot of weight by courts in deciding if someone's freedom from government interference should be respected. One would hope that courts were less naive and less deferential to such highly biased witnesses, who are caught lying with shocking regularity in our criminal justice system. Is it worth it? Don't the courts often think that this erodes the integrity of the entire system? If we are going to depend on the law enforcement for our safety and protection, doesn't it make you feel quite unsafe and quite unprotected knowing that they lie with impunity... I don't think, securing a conviction of one man is worth jeopardizing the entire system.

Credibility aside, even with the most honest and well-meaning officer, very well trained and conscientious as a witness, is it a good idea for us to surrender the freedoms secured to us to such an elusive concept as 'totality of factors?'

A: 'M'am we look at the totality of factors.'
Q: 'Totality of what factors, officer? Can you please enumerate all the factors, one by one, 1, 2, 3, 4, as to why you believed my client was engaged in criminal activity.'
A: He was wearing a hat with a 'G' on it.
Q: Is wearing a cap with a G necessarily point to his allegiance to the gang?
A: No.
Q: What else?
A: He was wearing oversized pants.
Q: Does that point to gang membership?
A: No.
Q: What else?
A: He was wearing tennis shoes predominantly worn by gang members.
Q: Does that amount to gang membership?
A: No.
Q: Next.
 A: He was pacing up and down the street in front of a known gang hang-out.
Q: Does that tell you that he is a member of that gang?
A: No.
And so forth.
At the end of all factors described that are not by themselves enough to suggest membership in the gang, officer will opine that 'your client is a member of that gang and I stopped him because I formed the opinion he was in violation of the gang injunction.'
Totality of innocent factors may indeed amount to a crime...

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