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May 19 — Five members of a special police task force didn't act unreasonably when they swooped down with two squad cars on a stationary vehicle in a high-crime area, yanked the occupants out and cuffed them while purportedly checking to see whether the car had been parked illegally, a divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled May 17.
The decision is notable because a dissenting judge accused his colleagues of giving cops the green light to seize minorities for minor infractions in the hope that the detention “will lead to bigger and better things.”
One of the car's four occupants, Randy Johnson, was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm after officers noticed a gun.
The court rejected Johnson's argument that the Milwaukee “Street Crimes Unit” violated the Fourth Amendment because they hadn't observed the car long enough to discern whether it was illegally parked within 15 feet of a cross walk or whether it was legally discharging passengers.
Officers don't need to negate every possible defense before investigating a reasonable suspicion that a traffic offense is being committed, the court said in an opinion by Judge Frank H. Easterbrook.
Moreover, even though the police “did more than just stroll up,” a claim of excessive force or racial profiling—neither of which was asserted in this case—is best corrected by a civil suit, not application of the exclusionary rule, the court said.
Judge Joel M. Flaum joined the opinion, but Judge David F. Hamilton dissented, arguing that the rule allowing pretext traffic stops shouldn't be extended to mere parking infractions.
The phenomenon of police stopping motorists for “driving while black,” is well-documented, he said.
“In this case, we seem to be taking the further step of enabling police seizures for ‘parking while black.' ”
The Federal Defender Services of Eastern Wisconsin, Milwaukee, represented Johnson. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Milwaukee represented the government.
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