WV Civil Rights Lawyer

Police Misconduct, Civil Rights Law

Anti Texting and Driving Ban Legislation

A form of the proposed anti texting and driving ban passed the West Virginia House of Delegates.  A few days ago I posted about the West Virginia texting and driving laws on the West Virginia Car Accident Law Blog, noting that this legislation was coming up for a vote.  It still has to pass the senate.  It only allows for officers to cite motorists for texting and driving as a “secondary” offense rather than a “primary” offense.  This means that cops cannot pull someone over just because they see someone texting and driving.  There has to be some primary infraction or other reason to make the stop.  Only then can the person be ticketed for texting and driving.

Honestly, even if it was a primary offense under the statute, it wouldn’t stop anybody.  Who is going to be texting with a police cruiser right next to them?  Most idiots who do this aren’t that stupid.  The best enforcement for the texting and driving problem is civil trial attorneys who sue persons who injure others due to texting and driving.  We can easily find out if someone had been texting at the time of, or immediately before, the collision.

See Charleston Gazette article today on the legislation.

Advertisements

February 18, 2011 Posted by | Lawsuits, Lawyers, Vehicular Crimes | Leave a comment

A WV Criminal Defense Attorney’s advice on how not to handle a traffic stop

Sometimes I give out free advice, such as my lecture on keeping one’s mouth shut.  Here is another.  At some point in your life you are going to be pulled over by a cop who treats you like crap.  He will either be really young, or will be older and act like a Marine drill sergeant.  He will talk down to you.  He will talk really loudly.  He may ask you personal questions.  You may feel provoked to run your mouth, or to insert a snide comment.

Although he may deserve it, do not say what you want to say.  Do not ask for his badge number (you can find that out after the fact if necessary – his identity will almost never be a mystery).  Do not ask for a supervisor.  Just say, “yes sir” and be polite and cooperative – even if he is not.  And then drive off as soon as he lets you.

Chances are, if he is being a jerk to you, he is capable of arresting you illegally.  They can arrest you for obstruction and/or resisting arrest merely by claiming that you refused to obey his lawful orders.  Then it is up to you after-the-fact to try and fight your way out of it.  Worse yet, maybe he says you took a swing at him.  Then you get charged with assault or battery on an officer.   It’s your word versus his, and his dash cam was conveniently inoperable.  At the very best you end up having to pay a criminal defense attorney to get you out of the mess, and a year later, get it expunged.  At worse, you end up at trial, and potentially get convicted.  Then maybe you appeal, etc.  It all could have been avoided.

Of course, if you have already done this and now have to pay huge sums of money to a West Virginia criminal defense attorney, it might as well be me (1-888-54-JBLAW – available statewide [shameless plug]).

September 30, 2010 Posted by | Police, Vehicular Crimes | 1 Comment

Prosecuted in retaliation for videotaping police misconduct

ABC News ran a story on the growing number of prosecutions for private citizens videotaping police misconduct.  The main story highlighted in the article was a guy who had a helmet mounted video camera, which taped a plain-clothes police officer swerving in front of the motorcyclist, slamming on his brakes, and jumping out with his gun in hand.

Was the officer disciplined for this act of cowboyism?  I don’t think so.  Instead the motorcyclist is being prosecuted for videotaping the officer without his consent.  The state police in Maryland actually busted into the guy’s house, searched it, and confiscated his computer and hard drive, and then indicted him for a felony violation of Maryland’s wiretapping laws.

Okay, arrest the guy for reckless driving.  I don’t have any problem with that.  But give me a break.  This is a bunch of garbage.  Our only means of protecting ourselves from cowboy cops is the video camera.  Almost every police prosecution that you see was forced due to the cop’s actions being caught on tape.  The cops know this, and they try their best to keep citizens from filming them.  The newspapers are full of people being arrested for “obstruction” or whatever, for filming cops.

The motorcyclist had a camera on his helmet.  He didn’t know that this cowboy was going to jump out at him waving his gun.  I am assuming cops in Maryland have dash mounted video cameras (although I am sure they are not on when it suits them not to be on).  Does that mean that every cop in Maryland with a dash cam is guilty of felony violations of Maryland wiretapping laws?  Don’t hold your breath for those prosecutions.

Obviously there is a double standard out there.  And people are getting tired of it.  I had a client who videotaped police shooting tear gas through his windows and them busting in with gas masks, AR-15,s and taser guns, then tasing him, and probably ended with them dragging him out of the picture.  What happened to the video?  It was confiscated by the police and never returned.  When I was finally able to see it, it conveniently “ended” before the gas grenades were shot into the house.

Gestapo tactics.  The ironic thing is, you see this sort of stuff from cops in suburbia, or other areas where there is very little real crime.  Just ask a real cop who has worked in the trenches – NYPD, LAPD, Charlotte PD, Atlanta PD, who deal with all sorts of crap and scumbags – they rarely engage in cowboyism, they have enough to worry about.

July 22, 2010 Posted by | Police, Police Misconduct, Vehicular Crimes | Leave a comment

New West Virginia Search and Seizure Statute

New legislation has been passed in West Virginia dealing with search and seizure.  It was pushed by the ACLU, who of course were only concerned for minorities having their rights disregarded.  But the fact is that everyone, across the board, has had their rights trampled when it comes to traffic searches and seizures.

It essentially provides that no longer can law enforcement merely testify after-the-fact that the vehicle owner consented to a search of his or her vehicle.  This, by the way, is pretty much the foundation for 80% of criminal prosecutions.  Either people are too dumb/ignorant/naive  to realize that they can say “no” to the officer who is asking to search their vehicle, or the cop just “testi-lies” after-the-fact that consent was given, when in fact it was not.  Who do you think the judge is going to believe, the law enforcement officer, or the guy who had marijuana/concealed weapon, etc. in his car?

Pursuant to this new statute, consent must now be recorded, either in writing through an approved form, or through an audio/video recording.  It must be communicated to the suspect that he or she has the right to refuse the search.  It also provides that he or she can revoke their consent at any time.  Though this may be dicey, because the revocation would not be recorded unless there was a dash cam, or other recorder, recording the audio.  The one exception for the recordation of consent is if there is an issue of officer safety.  Basically, if the cop can articulate some justification for believing there may be some weapon that could potentially harm him or her, then the statute flies out the window.

Remember, states are generally free to provide greater protection of civil liberties than is provided for in the U.S. Constitution (i.e., the US Supreme Court), which West Virginia has done here.  However, states are not free to provide less protection.  Hence, West Virginia could not pass a statute (that would be constitutional) which would allow officers to search vehicles without probable cause or consent.

The statute will take effect January 11, 2011.

Here is the statute:

A BILL to amend of the Code of West Virginia, 1931, as amended, by adding thereto two new sections, designated §62-1A-10 and §62- 1A-11, all relating to searches of motor vehicles by law- enforcement officers; establishing criteria; and requiring rules.

Be it enacted by the Legislature of West Virginia:

That the Code of West Virginia, 1931, as amended, be amended by adding thereto two new sections, designated §62-1A-10 and §62- 1A-11, all to read as follows:

ARTICLE 1A. SEARCH AND SEIZURE.
§62-1A-10. Motor vehicle searches.

(a) A law-enforcement officer who stops a motor vehicle for an alleged violation of a law or ordinance regulating traffic may not search the vehicle unless the law-enforcement officer:
(1) Has probable cause or another legal basis for the search;
(2) Conducts a search for weapons based on an articulation of a reasonable fear for the officer’s safety or the safety of others;
(3) Obtains the written consent of the operator of the vehicle on a form that complies with subsection (b), section eleven of this article; or
(4) Obtains the oral consent of the operator of the vehicle and ensures that the oral consent is evidenced by an audio and video recording that complies with subsection (c), section eleven of this article.
(b) This section takes effect on January 1, 2011.

§62-1A-11. Rules for certain evidence of consent to vehicle search.

(a) To facilitate the implementation of section ten of this article the Director of the Governor’s Committee on Crime, Delinquency and Corrections, in consultation with the Division of Motor Vehicles, shall propose emergency and legislative rules in accordance with article three, chapter twenty-nine-a of this code to establish the requirements for:
(1) A form used to obtain the written consent of the operator of a motor vehicle under section ten of this article; and
(2) An audio and video recording used as evidence of the oral consent of the operator of a motor vehicle under section ten of this article.
(b) At a minimum, the rules adopted under subsection (a) of this section must require the form to contain:
(1) A statement that the operator of the motor vehicle fully understands that the operator may refuse to give the law- enforcement officer consent to search the motor vehicle;
(2) A statement that the operator of the motor vehicle is freely and voluntarily giving the law-enforcement officer consent to search the motor vehicle;
(3) A statement that the operator of the motor vehicle may withdraw the consent at any time during the search;
(4) The time and date of the stop giving rise to the search;
(5) A description of the motor vehicle to be searched; and
(6) The name of each law-enforcement officer conducting the stop or search.
(c) At a minimum, the rules adopted under subdivision (2), subsection (a) of this section must require the audio and video recording to reflect an affirmative statement made by the operator that:
(1) The operator of the motor vehicle understands that the operator may refuse to give the law-enforcement officer consent to search the motor vehicle;
(2) The operator of the motor vehicle is voluntarily giving the law-enforcement officer consent to search the motor vehicle; and
(3) The operator of the motor vehicle was informed that the operator may withdraw the consent at any time during the search.
(d) The Director of the Governor’s Committee on Crime, Delinquency and Corrections shall adopt the rules required by this section no later than December 31, 2010.

NOTE: The purpose of this bill is to provide procedures to protect motor vehicle operators with regard to searches of their motor vehicles by law-enforcement officers.

§§62-1A-10 and 62-1A-11 are new; therefore, strike-throughs and underscoring have been omitted.

April 14, 2010 Posted by | Searches and Seizures, Suppression, Vehicular Crimes | 4 Comments

It’s not our fault…. Civil Liability of West Virginia Police Officers/Departments in Pursuit Situations

In this morning’s Beckley Register-Herald, there was an article about a West Virginia State Police pursuit involving an ATV.  Apparently there was undisputedly a pursuit of an officer in a cruiser, chasing a man on an ATV.  Also undisputed, at some point the ATV wrecked and the man was killed.  Where the issue lies is, did the wreck occur during the pursuit, or had the officer abandoned the pursuit, after which the man wrecked on down the road?  And could the West Virginia State Police be liable for a man fleeing on an ATV only to accidentally kill himself in the process?

The important fact is that the driver of the ATV was killed.  He had apparently stolen the vehicle, and thus had fled.  The end result is that this case is much, much different from a scenario in which a passenger on the ATV was killed, or some other potentially innocent third party.  I’m not going to comment on whether I think there is a case there or not for the deceased’ driver’s estate, but here is some helpful information for cases where the facts are slightly different:

This is a portion of the materials I prepared for a continuing legal education seminar that I presented in Charleston, West Virginia earlier this year which specifically deals with situations where innocent third parties are injured in car accidents resulting from police pursuit situations in West Virginia.  This deals with the liability aspects of the state or political subdivision rather than the liability of the fleeing suspect:

Most civil liability cases arising out of a pursuit situation involve collisions between the suspect and a third party.  It is well-settled in West Virginia that “[w]here the police are engaged in a vehicular pursuit of a known or suspected law violator, and the pursued vehicle collides with the vehicle of a third party, under W. Va. Code, 17C-2-5 (1971) (rules, privileges and immunities of authorized emergency vehicles), the pursuing officer is not liable for injuries to the third party arising out of the collision unless the officer’s conduct in the pursuit amounted to reckless conduct or gross negligence and was a substantial factor in bringing about the collision.” Syl. Pt. 5 Peak v. Ratliff, 185 W. Va. 548 (1991); See also Sergent v. City of Charleston, 209 W. Va. 437 (2001).

As with other types of police liability cases, employees of political subdivisions are individually liable for their grossly negligent or bad faith conduct.  However, there’s no need to name them personally, because pursuant to the West Virginia Governmental Tort Claims and Insurance Reform Act, their employer political subdivisions are already liable for damages due to the “negligent operation of any vehicle by their employees when engaged and within the scope of their authority,” W. Va. Code § 29-12A-4(c)(1) and (2), which encapsulates conduct in violation of the the Peak Criteria balancing test described below – which the Court describes as “negligent, wanton, or reckless.”  Note that if a political subdivision employee officer is named personally in the complaint, there may be a circumstantial argument that the plaintiff believes the officer was acting outside the scope of employment – leading the insurer to potentially issue a reservation of rights.  With respect to state employees, i.e., troopers, they may be named personally without the same limitations, and their conduct will be governed by the Peak Criteria discussed below.

Therefore, with respect to state employees, such as State Police officers, the applicable standard of care is W. Va. § 17C-2-5 and it’s interpretation in the Peak Critera.  The standard of care with respect to deputy sheriffs and municipal officers is both the West Virginia Governmental Tort Claims and Insurance Reform Act and W. Va. Code § 17C-2-5.  For these purposes, the phrase “reckless disregard for the safety of others, as used in W. Va. Code § 17C-2-5, is synonymous with gross negligence.” Peak, 185 W. Va. at 552.

West Virginia Code § 17C-2-5 governs the privileges and immunities of police officers who are driving authorized emergency vehicles in pursuit of actual or suspected violators of the law, which provides:

(a) The driver of an authorized emergency vehicle . . . when in the pursuit of an actual or suspected violator of the law . . . may exercise the privileges set forth in this section, but subject to the conditions herein stated.

(b) The driver of an authorized emergency vehicle may:

(1)      Park or stand, irrespective of the provisions of this chapter;

(2)     Proceed past a red or stop signal or stop sign, but only after slowing down as may be necessary for safe operation;

(3)     Exceed the speed limits so long as he does not endanger life or  property;

(4)     Disregard regulations governing the direction of movement of [or]  turning in specified directions.

(c)     The exemptions herein granted to an authorized emergency vehicle shall apply only when the driver of any said vehicle while in motion sounds audible          signal by bell, siren, or exhaust whistle as may be reasonably necessary, and when the vehicle is equipped with at least one lighted flashing lamp as authorized by section twenty-six [§ 17C-15-26], article fifteen of this chapter which is visible under normal atmospheric conditions from a distance of five hundred feet to the front of such vehicle, except that an authorized emergency vehicle operated as a police vehicle need not be equipped with or display a warning light visible from in front of the vehicle.

(d)      The foregoing provisions shall not relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons, nor shall these provisions protect the driver from the consequences of his reckless disregard for the safety of others.

In interpreting W. Va. Code § 17C-2-5, the West Virginia Supreme Court adopted the following factors to consider in analyzing whether the pursing officer’s conduct was negligent, wanton, or reckless (“The Peak Criteria”): seriousness of the law violation, whether the suspect escaped during a previous pursuit, whether weapons, drugs, stolen property, or kidnap victims could be present, whether the pursued vehicle is stolen, whether the officer is familiar with the road and its attributes, the weather conditions and visibility, the officer’s degree of caution in relation to the speed of the pursuit, whether pedestrians are present, the amount of traffic, the length of the pursuit, whether the officer “forced the pursuit” by attempting to overtake the suspect or force the suspect off the road, whether the officer fired a weapon and caused the suspect to panic.  Specifically, the Peak Court reasoned:

Trooper Ratliff and Corporal Fulknier were confronted with a serious law violator who had escaped capture in a vehicular pursuit the previous evening. The officers knew of Mr. Akers’ past record and the fact that the vehicle he abandoned on September 14, 1987, contained a weapon and drugs. Both vehicles driven by Mr. Akers on these two days were stolen. The officers were familiar with the road on which the pursuit was conducted. There was good visibility during the chase and no inclement weather which would make the road hazardous. Even though the speed was estimated at between 60 and 100 miles per hour, the officers were careful to slow down when passing cars. There were no pedestrians, and the traffic was moderate. The pursuit lasted only a brief period of time. It does not appear that the officers forced the pursuit by attempting to overtake Mr. Akers or by forcing him off the roadway. Neither officer attempted to fire his weapon, an act which might cause a fleeing suspect to panic. When Mr. Akers crossed the center line and drove into the filling station where the collision occurred, the officers were not in sight.

Peak, 185 W.Va. at 558, 408 S.E.2d at 310.

There also may be a proximate cause issue to deal with where you have a collision caused by the criminal behavior of the pursued suspect.  This issue was discussed by the West Virginia Supreme Court in Sergent v. City of Charleston, 209 W. Va. 437, 549 S.E.2d 311, where the Court noted that, given that proximate cause must be proven in a personal injury negligence action, “[t]he proximate cause of an injury is the last negligent act contributing to the injury and without which the injury would not have occurred.” Id. (citing Syl. Pt. 5 Hartley v. Crede, 140 W. Va. 133 (1954), overruled on other grounds).  But, “a tortfeasor whose negligence is a substantial factor in bringing about injuries is not relieved from liability by the intervening acts of third persons if those acts were reasonably foreseeable by the original tortfeasor at the time of his negligent conduct.” Syl. Pt. 13, Anderson v. Moulder, 183 W. Va. 77 (1990).  But, “generally, a willful, malicious, or criminal act breaks the chain of causation.” Yourtee v. Hubbard, 196 W. Va. 683, 690 (1996).

In the Sergent case, the Court held that the intervening criminal acts of “pursuing undercover officers, firing at them, fleeing from the police at high speed, and swerving off the road and onto the berm” were intervening acts which were not foreseeable by the officers involved, thereby “breaking the chain of causation which originally began with their arguably negligent conduct and relieving them, and their employers, of any liability.” Sergent, at S.E. Page 320-21.

Note, in the Sergent case, the plaintiff had proffered an affidavit written by a Maryland State Police officer giving an opinion that, based upon his professional experience, that the actions of the defendant officers

“departed from the standard of professional police conduct, so as to constitute gross negligence, and wanton and reckless conduct on their part, which proximately contributed to the incident causing the death of David Sergent, to include, but not necessarily limited to . . . their high speed pursuit . . . without breaking off the same prior to reaching the congested area; and by otherwise failing to utilize accepted national standards for bringing a fleeing suspect’s vehicle to stop . . . [f]ailing to abide by the Charleston Police Department’s own policies and procedures pertinent to: a. Planning and executing their apprehension of the suspect Jerome Thomas; b. The protection of life during vehicular pursuit; c. Breaking off vehicular pursuit for the public safety; and d. Rendering aid to an injured pedestrian . . . 6. Their failure to abide by and adhere to standards of professional police conduct, such as those contained in the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Inc., Model Policy on Vehicular Pursuits.”

The Court held that no rational jury could find that the conduct of [the officers] . . . was wanton or reckless.  Regarding Sergeant Miller’s affidavit, the Court noted that:

The bulk of Sergeant Miller’s affidavit concerning the officers’ conduct during the vehicular pursuit amounts to nothing more than mere allegations. The affidavit opines that the officers failed to follow applicable local, national and international police standards and failed to protect life during the vehicular pursuit. But without pointing to specific tortious conduct and showing how this conduct caused the suspects’ collision with the decedent, these allegations are wholly insufficient to support a negligence action. Stripped of these allegations, the appellant’s claim is essentially that it was negligence for the officers not to terminate their pursuit prior to the decedent’s death. We reject this claim as being contrary to our law.

Sergent, at S.E. Page 320-21.

– John H. Bryan, West Virginia Attorney

September 10, 2009 Posted by | Civil Liability, Police Misconduct, Vehicular Crimes | Leave a comment

In the name of “officer safety”

Rick Horowitz from Probable Cause had an interesting post regarding “officer safety” and the rights of motorists.  In essence, his theory, which has long been a pet peeve of mine, is that supposed “officer safety” is used to violate the rights of motorists.  If you have ever tried an “obstruction” case, you will hear the prosecutor ask officers who conducted a “traffic” stop questions about their training and “officer safety” and why they instruct persons to get out of the vehicle – or to not get out of the vehicle – or to put their hands in a certain place, and so on and so forth.  Many times this coincidentally coincides with the officer(s) subsequently finding something incriminating in the vehicle.  For example, here is a portion of transcript from an obstruction (among other things) trial:

7       Q   So you turned on your blue lights; right?           

8       A   Yes.                                                

9       Q   And the purpose of doing that is to tell the driver 

10  of the vehicle what?                                         

11       A   To pull over.                                       

12       Q   And, was it clear to you, that there was a driver   

13  of that truck, with the Florida tags; you should see the     

14  driver?                                                      

15       A   Yes.                                                

16       Q   Did you attend the State Police Academy before      

17  becoming a West Virginia State Trooper?                      

18       A   Yes.  All troopers are required to attend the       

19  Academy before —                                            

20       Q   And how long — how long is the Academy?            

21       A   It’s going to be for 30 weeks, equivalent to seven  

22  months.                                                      

23       Q   And, as part of your training, do you receive       

24  specific training in traffic stops?                          

Page 359 

1       A   Yes, we do.  Like a lot if training, they try to go 

2  over and over.  What the purpose of that is – they call it   

3  muscle memory – when you get into a high-stress situation,   

4  or your stress level elevates, whatever you practice, their  

5  theory is that you’ll just automatically — you’ll           

6  automatically do in a high-stress situation.                 

7       Q   And from your training, and experience as a West    

8  Virginia State Trooper, are traffic stops considered high-   

9  stress situations?                                           

10       A   Yes.  Through the training that we received,        

11  everything other than a known felony stop, we actually       

12  consider an unknown stop, which is an unknown risk.  Mainly  

13  because we don’t know the driver, we don’t know who’s in the 

14  vehicle or what’s in the vehicle.  So, yes, they all — all  

15  of them are considered high-stress and possible risk stops.  

16       Q   And, from your training at the Academy, and then    

17  after you were out of the Academy, were you taught, and      

18  trained, in what percentage of police officers — shootings  

19  of police officers occur during what should be routine       

20  traffic stops?                                               

21       A   Yes.  It’s actually a higher percent than I like.   

22  Actually, I believe the US Supreme Court had a case on it,   

23  referenced where up to 30 percent of actual police shootings 

24  occurred during routine police traffic stops.                

Page 360 

1       Q   Now, as a practicing Trooper, can you estimate how  

2  many traffic stops you have made a month, at this point?     

3       A   And I don’t do a lot of traffic, some’s a lot       

4  higher than this, but I usually pull over, I would say,      

5  between 25 to 35 cars a month, for various traffic reasons.  

6       Q   And when you make those traffic stops, do you       

7  follow the procedures that you were taught in your training  

8  at the West Virginia State Police Academy?                   

9       A   Yes, ma’am, every time.                             

10       Q   As to the particular procedures that you were       

11  taught, what is the goal, what’s the purpose of those        

12  procedures that you are to follow in making a traffic stop,  

13  as a State Policeman?                                        

14       A   The main thing is, basically, risk reduction, for   

15  the safety of everybody there.                               

16       Q   And does that include safety of the officer?        

17       A   That includes the safety of the officer, safety of  

18  whoever we’re pulling over in the vehicle, along with the    

19  public safety.                                               

20       Q   And what are the risk factors in the traffic stop,  

21  that your procedures are designed to reduce?                 

22       A   With that, especially, and probably most of you can 

23  relate to seeing videos of being beside the roadway.  First  

24  off, it’s very dangerous for traffic stops, for other        

Page 361 

1  traffic coming by, just ’cause you’re in such close proximity 

2  to the traffic flow; that, in one, is dangerous.             

3       Two, like I said, you don’t never know who the driver   

4  is, or who you’re pulling over.  Mainly, if you’re doing a   

5  traffic stop – and, mostly, I’m going to give somebody a     

6  warning, but the driver don’t know that – and if it’s        

7  somebody else, it could be very dangerous.  Or, if they      

8  robbed a bank, thirty minutes down the road, and I’m unaware 

9  of that, they might have a gun, or something that could      

10  actually hinder myself during this stop, which I’m unaware   

11  of.                                                          

12       Q   And what about the flight risk; could you explain   

13  to the jurors the risk of flight when you have an unknown    

14  traffic stop?                                                

15       A   Yes.  And it is highly likely that, you know, even  

16  when I get out of the vehicle, that the car might pull off.  

17  Several occasions, you go to approach the vehicle and        

18  somebody – I mean, I’m sure you’ve seen it on TV – jumps out 

19  of the vehicle and takes off running.  So — and if I        

20  actually approach the vehicle and, let’s say, they are       

21  wanting to cause me harm, and they are able to do some kind  

22  of harm from me, it’s very possible for them just to take    

23  off without any help to myself.                              

24       Q   When you pull over the vehicle, either because it   

Page 362 

1  — the driver is a suspect in a crime, or because of a       

2  traffic violation, when you pull over a vehicle, is there    

3  information that you are supposed to relay, and also         

4  information that, by your training and experience as a West  

5  Virginia State Trooper, you are supposed to be receiving?    

6       A   Yes, ma’am.  The start off, every time we perform a 

7  traffic stop, we always want to notify our dispatcher —     

8  advise ’em of our location, that we’re actually on a traffic 

9  stop, so they can check on us and know what we’re doing.     

10  Some information you want to give to start off with is color 

11  of the vehicle, like I said, the location of where the stop  

12  is.  And also important, is the license plate of the         

13  vehicle.  With the license plate, they’re able to return the 

14  vehicle it’s supposed to be on, who owns the vehicle.  And   

15  they also can check to see if that license plate or vehicle  

16  has been stolen, or is a stolen vehicle.                     

17       Q   And do you do that, as much as possible, unless you 

18  are obstructed or prevented from doing that, every time you  

19  make a traffic stop?                                         

20       A   Yes, ma’am.                                         

21       Q   Now, do you — are there standard procedures, that  

22  you learned in your training, and you practice in your 25 to 

23  30 traffic stops a month, first of all, as to whether or not 

24  you want the driver to stay in the vehicle, or get out of    

Page 363 

1  the vehicle?                                                 

2       A   Yeah.  Through our training, and it might vary from 

3  department to department, but what we want is the driver to  

4  actually stay in the vehicle.                                

5       Q   And why is that, explain that, if you would?        

6       A   The reason to have them stay in the vehicle, it’s   

7  more of a con — we have more control if they’re in the      

8  vehicle.  For the safety issue, like I said, to mention      

9  first, it’s a — a lot of times, we’re on the highway,       

10  interstate, busy roads, if the driver’s in the vehicle, it’s 

11  a lot less likely that he’s going to get hit by a passing    

12  car.  Two, we’re able to approach the vehicle and kind of    

13  keep an eye on the driver and see what he’s doing.  Where,   

14  if he gets out of the vehicle he could either (a) run, or do 

15  something else, which would make us have a lot less control  

16  over the driver.                                             

17       Q   Are you even taught, and trained, to stand in a     

18  particular relation to the driver’s door?                    

19       A   Yes.  And, as we’re taught, when we’re approaching  

20  a vehicle – and if you ever — anyone’s ever got pulled      

21  over, you maybe even noticed this and wondered – I always    

22  take my hand and touch the back of the vehicle in case       

23  something happens, you know, and the driver leaves.  Maybe   

24  somebody might be able to put my connection with that        Page 363 

1  the vehicle?                                                 

2       A   Yeah.  Through our training, and it might vary from 

3  department to department, but what we want is the driver to  

4  actually stay in the vehicle.                                

5       Q   And why is that, explain that, if you would?        

6       A   The reason to have them stay in the vehicle, it’s   

7  more of a con — we have more control if they’re in the      

8  vehicle.  For the safety issue, like I said, to mention      

9  first, it’s a — a lot of times, we’re on the highway,       

10  interstate, busy roads, if the driver’s in the vehicle, it’s 

11  a lot less likely that he’s going to get hit by a passing    

12  car.  Two, we’re able to approach the vehicle and kind of    

13  keep an eye on the driver and see what he’s doing.  Where,   

14  if he gets out of the vehicle he could either (a) run, or do 

15  something else, which would make us have a lot less control  

16  over the driver.                                             

17       Q   Are you even taught, and trained, to stand in a     

18  particular relation to the driver’s door?                    

19       A   Yes.  And, as we’re taught, when we’re approaching  

20  a vehicle – and if you ever — anyone’s ever got pulled      

21  over, you maybe even noticed this and wondered – I always    

22  take my hand and touch the back of the vehicle in case       

23  something happens, you know, and the driver leaves.  Maybe   

 

Page 364 

1  vehicle.                                                     

2       As I’m continuing to approach the driver, we can always 

3  look through the back glass and the windows, see if he’s     

4  maybe reaching under his seat to grab a firearm or trying to 

5  hide something he’s not supposed to have.  With standing at  

6  the vehicle, we always like to stand right behind the driver 

7  door, which allows us to have a — the best view we can of   

8  inside the vehicle, to check to see if there’s anything      

9  that’s not supposed to be there, or any weapons that the     

10  driver might be able to reach and grab.                      

11       Q   And would it be fair to say that, obviously, any    

12  time the driver is allowed out of the vehicle, that          

13  increases the flight risk, and the risk to the public?       

14       A   Right, yes.                                         

15       Q   Then what about your training and experience as a   

16  State Policeman, what do you instruct – order – the driver   

17  to do, if he gets out, as to his hands?                      

18       A   And, on traffic stops, it happens, sometimes the    

19  driver will go to get out of the vehicle.  Order them to get 

20  back in the vehicle and, usually, they comply with that      

21  order, and then wait for me to approach ’em.                 

22       Q   And if a driver gets out of the vehicle against     

23  your orders, what do you tell them — where do you want his  

24  hands?                                                       Page 364 

1  vehicle.                                                     

2       As I’m continuing to approach the driver, we can always 

3  look through the back glass and the windows, see if he’s     

4  maybe reaching under his seat to grab a firearm or trying to 

5  hide something he’s not supposed to have.  With standing at  

6  the vehicle, we always like to stand right behind the driver 

7  door, which allows us to have a — the best view we can of   

8  inside the vehicle, to check to see if there’s anything      

9  that’s not supposed to be there, or any weapons that the     

10  driver might be able to reach and grab.                      

11       Q   And would it be fair to say that, obviously, any    

12  time the driver is allowed out of the vehicle, that          

13  increases the flight risk, and the risk to the public?       

14       A   Right, yes.                                         

15       Q   Then what about your training and experience as a   

16  State Policeman, what do you instruct – order – the driver   

17  to do, if he gets out, as to his hands?                      

18       A   And, on traffic stops, it happens, sometimes the    

19  driver will go to get out of the vehicle.  Order them to get 

20  back in the vehicle and, usually, they comply with that      

21  order, and then wait for me to approach ’em.                 

22       Q   And if a driver gets out of the vehicle against     

23  your orders, what do you tell them — where do you want his  

24  hands?                                                       

Page 365 

1       A   If a driver gets out of the vehicle, and he’s not   

2  replying, of course, the stress level and the threat level   

3  increases, first because he’s not obeying my order, which is 

4  a lawful order.  Second, with the hands, I don’t want ’em    

5  anywhere near the coats or pockets, where they could reach   

6  — or anything that might cause me harm.  Either up in the   

7  air where I can see ’em, up on the vehicle where I know he   

8  can’t reach and grab anything to — that might harm myself   

9  or any public.                                               

10       Q   Was there a phrase that you were taught, that your  

11  instructors at the Academy used, to emphasize the need to    

12  keep the suspect hands up in the air or on a car?            

13       DEFENSE ATTORNEY:  Your Honor, I’m going to object to    

14  the leading nature of this —                                

15       THE COURT:  Overruled; 611 allows me to permit this     

16  type of preliminary stuff.  I’m going to allow it; go ahead. 

17       THE WITNESS:  Yes, as the — as the instruction — in   

18  the Academy, they often teach us, they always tell us that   

19  feet can hurt you, but hands can kill you.  Basically,       

20  meaning just, you know, being kicked and stuff can hurt you, 

21  but the hands can always grab a weapon such as a knife or a  

22  firearm.                                                     

23  PROSECUTOR (resuming):                                    

24       Q   Now, on the evening of June 8th of ’07, after you   

Page 366 

1  turned on your blue lights, can you tell the jury what did   

2  the defendant do?    

As I said, this has long been a pet peeve of mine.  Of course we all respect law enforcement officers and acknowledge that they have a sometimes dangerous and difficult job – just like many other professions.  However, they chose to be law enforcement officers.  And they chose to pull someone over for a “traffic” violation.  That they are worried, or trained to be worried, about their own safety, should not make it okay for them to treat someone like a criminal.  It’s one thing if you are pulling over a bank robbery suspect, but if you are pulling someone over for going 6 mph over the limit, you should not have your hand on your gun.  You should not shout at someone as if they are armed and dangerous.  Why should someone pulled over for a traffic violation have to keep their hands on the wheel?  What can be more demeaning that to be treated like a criminal as a practice and procedure of a law enforcement agency?  I would venture to say that more people are probably wrongly shot by law enforcement officers because they are jumpy due to all of this “training” than law enforcement officers who are actually shot by a traffic-stop motorist (especially in high crime areas where “traffic” stops are mostly investigatory pretext stops).  Don’t believe me?  Google it.  And surely, more officers are hit by passing motorists distracted by the emergency lights than who are shot.  And that is unfortunate, but it was their choice to engage in a profession where they have to stand on the side of the road and encounter strangers in cars.  That is just a risk that comes with the job.  It is not okay to feel safer by violating the rights and respect of innocent persons.

And it definitely is not okay to abuse the purpose of “officer safety” in order to assist in more efficient criminal prosecution, which is done in mainly two ways, such as was the case in the above-transcripted case: (1) to achieve an initial arrest of the person in order to question them and inventory/search their vehicle, and (2) to throw in yet another charge to try the suspect on and/or use for plea negotiations.  

Note: the defendant in the above-transcripted case was found not guilty of obstruction, despite the lengthy oratory of the prosecutor and trooper.

 – John H. Bryan, West Virginia Attorney.

July 15, 2009 Posted by | Police, Police Misconduct, Searches and Seizures, Vehicular Crimes | 1 Comment

West Virginia Roads are Dangerous and Worthy of Speed Limit Enforcement

I posted to the West Virginia Car Accident Law Blog yesterday regarding a study that just came out yesterday:

There was a report just released from the federal government indicating that younger drivers are more likely to die on West Virginia roads than anywhere else in the country. According to an article on WSAZ.com, statistics show that West Virginia’s death rate among younger drivers was 70 percent higher than the national average. Thirty six West Virginians between the ages of 16 and 20 died in crashes in 2006.

The article notes that “experts say traffic fatalities are twice as high in rural areas where drivers are more likely to speed and less likely to wear seat belts.”

I think those are two factors involved, but not the only ones. A reporter called me today and asked me what I thought were the main reasons for this problem. I responded that I think that younger drivers are reckless drivers no matter what state you are in. But when you put them on windy, mountain roads with no enforcement of the speed limit, you are asking for disaster. And that is my theory at least, about why the young fatalities are so high on West Virginia roads. But certainly the advent of new cell phone technologies and their 24/7 usage by younger persons is playing a part as well.

This is an issue that I am passionate about. Growing up in Florida, where nearly all roads are straight, I always felt that the police, when giving tickets, were more interested in harassing people – or making money for local entities – than they were in “serving and protecting.” But here in West Virginia, I the situation is the opposite. Law enforcement can’t be bothered to pull people over for merely speeding. They are too busy showing up to domestic disturbances and what-not. But anyone who drives on these roads can tell you what it feels like to approach a blind curve in the road and see a maniac tractor trailer driver halfway into your lane and speeding. They do this because they absolutely do not fear speed limit enforcement.

Law enforcement are understaffed, but like I told this reporter, they are also under-motived in that their superiors have no incentive to require them to make traffic stops. Very, very little of the total amount paid for traffic tickets in West Virginia go to the political subdivision where the ticket is given. It literally is not worth it to the county or city.

Almost all of the troubles that cities and counties have in paying for law enforcement could be alleviated by ticketing speeding and reckless drivers consistently, and then funneling most of the money into the county or city operating budget. This could bring other problems, such as notorious speed-traps, but that is a sacrifice I would be willing to make in order to save lives.

And for the tractor trailer drivers and companies who selfishly speed through our communities: they should be made to pay big. And I mean big. If they are speeding on our roads here in West Virginia, we should figuratively filet them with a “ginzu” knife. The fines should be so high that they will never, ever forget to obey the speed limit in our state.

– John H. Bryan, West Virginia Attorney

October 1, 2008 Posted by | Vehicular Crimes | Leave a comment

Common-sense Sentencing

This morning I witnessed the sentencing of a young man who, by driving drunk, killed his two best friends who were passengers in the vehicle he was driving. He cried remorsefully to the judge, and then both mothers of his deceased friends spoke to the court. They both pleaded with the judge to be lenient, and to give him community service in lieu of an active jail or prison sentence. One of the mothers suggested that he be required to talk with high school kids in the area about the dangers of drunk driving. There were a lot of tears all around, and it was quite moving to witness this.

In the end, the judge gave him about 2 1/2 years and suspended the sentence, giving him 2 years probation and 200 hours community service. As part of the community service, the judge implemented the suggestion of one of the grieving mothers, that he speak to high school kids about the dangers of drunk driving. Most defendants in this situation have the book thrown at them, and indeed they deserve it for robbing the lives of others because of their own foolish selfishness. But in this case, you could see that the kid was really suffering for what he had done. And the mother’s had lost everything, and this was closure to them. This young man was the best friend to both of their sons. To send him to prison or jail would not have helped anybody. Hopefully he will have an impact on some young kid sitting in a classroom, and a future tragedy will be prevented.

– John H. Bryan, West Virginia Attorney.

September 2, 2008 Posted by | Sentencing, Vehicular Crimes | Leave a comment

New West Virginia DUI Law Effective June 6, 2008

I reported on the new West Virginia DUI statute in a previous post, which can be found here. I previously reported that the effective date would be June 1, 2008. From what I have heard from other attorneys, and from the WV Supreme Court, the effective date will actually be June 6, 2008.

This means that if you get arrested for DUI on or after June 6, 2008, then the new law will govern your case.

– John H. Bryan, West Virginia Attorney.

June 10, 2008 Posted by | DUI, Legislation, Vehicular Crimes | Leave a comment

West Virginia Police Conducting DUI Stops Everywhere This Weekend

In case you didn’t know, this is the most popular weekend for police to perform DUI checkpoints. According to the Register-Herald, the Beckley -area police are all ganging up to conduct a “DUI saturation sting.” Of course, nobody wants drunk drivers on our roads. The problem is that this makes it extremely easy for innocent people to get caught in their traps.

Beckley Police Sgt. Paul Blume, director of the program, says extra officers from the Beckley, Mabscott and Sophia police departments, as well as from the Raleigh County Sheriff’s Department and State Police, will be out in full force until 4 a.m. Saturday, concentrating on drunk driving patrols.

Blume said although the heaviest DUI concentration will be tonight there will be extra patrols throughout the holiday weekend. In addition to the DUI patrols, extra officers enforcing the annual Click it or Ticket campaign will be on the roads looking for seatbelt violations. Although Blume says Memorial Day ranks at or near the top of the deadliest holidays of the year, there are things travelers can do to help keep themselves and others safe.

“If you’re going to drink, designate a driver,” he said. “Most people know in advance if they’re going to be consuming alcohol. Be smart enough to designate a driver and have someone else drive you.

That certainly is good advice. The best advice however, is probably to stay home this weekend, if possible. Between the drunk drivers, and the cops looking for drunk drivers, you’ll be lucky to make it home in one piece.

You can read the full article here.

– John H. Bryan, West Virginia Attorney.

May 23, 2008 Posted by | DUI, Police, Vehicular Crimes | 1 Comment