In late June the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that a traffic stop following a fake “fire drill” at a Mankato intersection was reasonable under the law. In general, the Fourth Amendment does not allow officers to conduct an investigatory stop without a sufficient level of reasonable suspicion that some kind of unlawful conduct is happening. That is a simple hunch that something is awry is not a proper basis for police to stop a vehicle.
In 2011, a Mankato police officer says that he drove up behind a car at a Mankato intersection around 2:30 in the morning. He says that several people jumped out of the car and ran around the vehicle. The idea is a known common prank. The officer says that one of the participants ran off after seeing the squad car, but other people jumped back in the car and drove through the intersection.
The officer pulled over the vehicle and ultimately arrested the driver on suspicion of driving while impaired based upon his observations during the early morning traffic stop. The woman challenged the evidence gathered after the original stop, arguing that the officer violated constitutional guarantees against unreasonable intrusion in conducting the stop. Prosecutors argued that the stop was justified.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court—the trial judge refused to suppress the DWI evidence. The appellate panel noted that the officer testified that he had to wait 15 to 20 seconds behind the vehicle during the prank while the light was green. The court ruled that the officer was justified in conducting a stop to investigate his suspicion that the driver had violated the law by impeding traffic. Courts generally hold that a minor traffic violation is a sufficient reason to conduct a stop.
While the woman did not prevail in the legal argument, it is important for people to consider raising issues in a criminal case to help protect individual constitutional rights. Constitutional principles would lose their effectiveness if the concepts were not challenged in court.
We have recently discussed the issue of criminal appeals in different contexts—including in the McNeely case, where the Supreme Court ruled that warrantless blood tests in routine DWI cases generally violate the Constitution.
Allowing constitutional rights to erode without challenge is tantamount to allowing the government to potentially obtain a wrongful conviction in the first place. These appellate court rulings typically follow challenges raised in the trial court, where the rubber meets the road in criminal defense.
Source: The Mankato Free Press, “Court: fake fire drill justified drunken driving arrest,” Dan Nienaber, June 29, 2013; Minnesota Court of Appeals, “State v. Holdgrafer, A12-1357, June 24, 2013