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California Court of Appeal: Hunch That Proves Correct Is Not Reasonable Suspicion for Traffic Stop

by Douglas Ankney

Division Two of the Fourth Appellate District for the California Court of Appeal ruled that an officer must have reasonable suspicion based on articulable facts to initiate a traffic stop, and a hunch, even when it proves correct, is insufficient.

After a jury convicted Blanca Luna Mendoza of transporting for sale more than 4 kilograms of cocaine, she appealed, arguing that the trial court erred when it denied her motion to suppress the evidence. U.S. Border Patrol Agent Arturo Acosta testified at the suppression hearing that his training included behavior analysis, which he described as “being able to — for us to be able to pull over a vehicle, we need reasonable suspicion. For me, reasonable suspicion is a hunch of articulable facts that will allow us to pull over a vehicle. The explanation could be something simple [like] a lane change, the behavior [of] the person in the vehicle, the vehicle slowing down.”

In November 2017, Acosta was patrolling Interstate 15 in San Diego County near the U.S.-Mexico border (a known drug trafficking corridor) in an unmarked car when he ran Mendoza’s license plate and learned of the vehicle’s recent border crossing. Because of the “nexus” with “crossing the border,” Acosta pulled up next to the passenger’s side of Mendoza’s vehicle, rolled down his tinted window and leaned forward to get a better look after “she got a really good look at me.”

Acosta testified that Mendoza then slowed down and got behind him. He stated she would not pass him even though he slowed to 50 mph and switched his vehicle to the slow lane to the right of Mendoza. After about three miles, Mendoza did pass him, but “she had both hands on the wheel and didn’t look at [Acosta] as she passed.” Acosta testified he initiated the traffic stop based off those facts.

Once the vehicle was stopped, Mendoza consented to a search, and Acosta discovered seven bricks of cocaine inside a backpack within the vehicle. The trial court described Acosta’s reasons for the stop as “weak,” but because Acosta was able to articulate four or five reasons that weren’t “something he made up,” the motion to suppress was denied.

The Court of Appeal observed that
“[t]he Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). A traffic stop is a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, which imposes a standard of “reasonableness” on government officials when conducting a traffic stop. Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648 (1979). “[T]o justify an investigative stop or detention the circumstances known or apparent to the officer must include specific or articulable facts causing him to suspect that (1) some activity relating to crime has taken place or is occurring or is about to occur, and (2) the person he intends to stop or detain is involved in that activity.” In re Tony C., 582 P.2d 957 (Cal. 1978). An investigative stop predicated on mere curiosity or hunch is unlawful even if the officer is acting in good faith. In re James D., 741 P.2d 161 (Cal. 1987).

Innocuous acts, even when done in a high-crime area, do not become reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. People v. Loewen, 672 P.2d 436 (Cal. 1983). There is no reasonable suspicion where the criteria relied upon by officers does not differentiate a suspect from any number of innocent persons. People v. Valenzuela, 28 Cal. App. 4th 817 (1994). If a search or seizure without a warrant was unreasonable, the evidence may be suppressed. Pen. Code, § 1538.5(a)(1)(A).

In the instant case, Acosta ran Mendoza’s plates because she was driving in a known drug-trafficking corridor, but that fact alone was not sufficient to warrant a stop because that section of I-15 is traveled by more than 295,000 vehicles daily. Merely crossing the U.S.-Mexico border also failed to provide reasonable suspicion because it is the most crossed border in the world. Guinness World Records, Random House Digital, Inc. p. 457.

Regarding Mendoza slowing and pulling her vehicle behind Acosta, she did so only after Acosta pulled alongside her in an unmarked and unidentified vehicle, rolled down his window, and leaned his head to stare at her. 

Mendoza, a female driving alone, took action consistent with a woman who interpreted Acosta’s actions as threatening and not because she attempted to evade contact with law enforcement as she was unaware Acosta was an officer.

Finally, when Mendoza passed Acosta, it was perfectly natural for her to keep both hands on the steering wheel and to keep her eyes on the road.

The Court concluded that Acosta acted on a hunch that proved correct, but he failed to articulate facts giving rise to reasonable suspicion to justify the traffic stop. Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the trial court. See: People v. Mendoza, 2020 Cal. App. LEXIS 90 (2020). 

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