Sunday, October 28th, 2012

Stop and Flop

United States v. Wilson, No. 11-915 (2d Cir. October 25, 2012) (Jacobs, Calabresi, Pooler, CJJ)

Defendant Wilson was subject to a car stop near New York’s border with Canada. He was just outside of the St. Regis Mohawk reservation, not a member of the tribe, and the officers who stopped the car – which was registered to a known marijuana dealer – were members of the tribal police department. As tribal officers, under state law they were without authority to exercise police duties outside of the reservation, although one of them was also cross-designated as a U.S. Customers Officer by ICE. After a brief interview, in which Wilson admitted traveling into and out of Canada, and scoring a bit of weed while there, a U.S. Border Patrol Agent, who had arrived after the stop, searched Wilson’s car and found three bags of marijuana.

The district court suppressed the evidence, finding that the car stop violated the Fourth Amendment. The lower court concluded that the tribal officers lacked the authority to stop the car: as tribal police officers they could not act and, although one was designated a Customers Officer, the regulation covering such designations required him to obtain prior authorization to exercise customs authority, which he had not. 

On this, the government’s appeal, the circuit reversed.  The court held that the relevant Supreme Court Fourth Amendment precedents make clear that the legality of a stop turns on the existence of probable cause and not on the officers’ jurisdictional bounds. While a search or seizure based on probable cause might violate the Fourth Amendment if conducted in an “extraordinary manner” that is “unusually harmful to an individual’s privacy” or “physical interests,” that exception is not implicated by a run-of-the-mill car stop. “[T]he Fourth Amendment does not generally incorporate local statutory or regulatory restrictions on seizures and … the violation of such restrictions will not generally affect the constitutionality of a seizure supported by probable cause.”

Here, the officers had probable cause to believe that Wilson had intentionally failed to enter the United States at a designated border crossing, a violation of federal law, and that he was driving with an obstructed license plate, in violation of New York’s Vehicle and Traffic Law.  And the ICE directive that would have given the tribal officer authority to act but that was not followed here was of no consequence to the analysis. “Nothing about the Fourth Amendment elevates an internal law enforcement agency directive regarding the chain of command to constitutional significance.” The agent’s failure to seek authorization did not result in the stop’s being conducted in an “extraordinary manner.” After all, he was indeed a Customs Officer at the time.

As a separate matter, the court also concluded that there was probable cause for the search of Wilson’s car, not just the stop. The officers knew that Wilson was driving a car registered to a marijuana dealer, and he admitted buying marijuana while in Canada.

Finally, this decision leaves open an important question: whether a violation of the state’s jurisdictional statute – under which the tribal officers lacked authority to act outside of the reservation – affected the reasonableness of the stop. The government’s position was that all that matters is the level of suspicion, but the court did not take on this question. Deciding whether local geographical jurisdictional limitations are relevant to the Fourth Amendment will have “far reaching effects,” and it was not necessary to decide the question here.

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