Are Fast-Food Wrappers Littering Your Car? That’s Reasonably Suspicious!

Messy Car Interior

There’s another police officer/qualified immunity petition the U.S. Supreme Court will consider Friday. It has been relisted three times, increasing the odds that the court will take some sort of action on it other than denying review.

What really makes the case interesting, however, is that one of the officers involved in the case was involved in an almost identical scenario 20 years ago. That case didn’t make it to the Supreme Court.

In 1995, Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Richard Jimerson and his partner stopped Terry L. Wood for speeding on Interstate 70.

Jimerson thought Wood acted “extremely nervous” and that the fast-food wrappers and maps strewn about the car were suspicious.

(This makes me extremely nervous! You should see the state of my car.) (Not pictured.)

Jimerson questioned Wood extensively about his rental car and the trip he was taking. As he was about to let him go, Jimerson asked Wood if he could search his car. When Wood said “no,” Jimerson ordered the car be detained for a drug dog’s search.

The officers ultimately found meth in the car but Wood argued the drugs couldn’t be used as evidence against him in the ensuing drug possession charge.

The Tenth Circuit agreed and ruled the drugs were “the fruit of the poisonous tree” and couldn’t be used as evidence because the troopers didn’t have reasonable suspicion to detain the car.

Fast forward to 2011…

Peter L. Vasquez is stopped by—you guessed it—Jimerson and Trooper Dax K. Lewis while driving along I-70 because they couldn't tell whether his car had a rear license plate.

The troopers thought Vasquez appeared nervous while they questioned him about his trip, and Jimerson thought the pillow on the backseat and items strewn about the floor were suspicious.

Jimerson and Lewis engaged Vasquez in small talk, just like they did Wood, and ultimately asked for consent to search his car. When he refused, they detained him until a drug dog arrived to search the car. This time no drugs were found.

Vasquez sued for damages. He argued that the initial stop was proper but that the detention and search were unreasonable and in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The troopers claimed they were immune from suit.

The Tenth Circuit found that the search was unreasonable and that under Wood, which clearly established what constitutes detention without reasonable suspicion, the officers weren’t entitled to qualified immunity.

The officers have petitioned the Supreme Court, alleging that the Tenth Circuit erroneously looked at each factor of the qualified immunity test on its own, rather than collectively, to determine there was no reasonable suspicion.
The court could decide whether to review the case Monday.

The case is Lewis v. Vasquez, No. 16-805.

For more coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court take a free trial of The United States Law Week.