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United States Supreme Court may address reasonableness of scope of seizure in Nevada v. Torres

A Nevada case brings up an important question – is it acceptable for a police officer to stop someone on the street due to a suspicion of alcohol consumption? More importantly, is it right for an officer to make these judgements based on how the person is walking? Finally, is evidence acquired by this [seemingly] unwarranted stop and seizure admissible in a court of law? These questions are presented in The State of Nevada vs. Ralph Torres. 

The facts

A young man was walking over a bridge in Nevada late one February night. Being a cold winter night, this man was walking with his sweatshirt pulled up over his head in an attempt to stay warm. An officer in the area noticed the man and felt that it was likely that he was intoxicated because of the way he was walking. He also noticed that the man was small, making the assumption that he was a child and was out past his curfew.

After the officer approached the man (Torres) and asked for his I.D., he saw that the man was an adult. The officer kept Torres’ I.D., later claiming it was due to the fact he wanted to ensure it was not a fake I.D. Upon checking Torres’ background, the officer found that he had two arrest warrants from California. This prompted the officer to place him under arrest. Then, upon searching the respondent, he found a handgun in his pocket, with ammunition in another pocket.

You can get a more detailed story of the facts of the case here

The charges 

Torres was then charged with being an ex-felon in the possession of a firearm along with carrying a concealed weapon. After moving to suppress the firearm, the state decided that the encounter between the officer and Mr. Torres was essentially just protocol and was a way for the officer to validate his citizenship and identification. This was then appealed to the Supreme Court of Nevada.

The Supreme Court of Nevada found that the search of Mr. Torres was illegal, because there was no reason to suspect that Mr. Torres was committing any sort of crime at the time of the encounter he had with the officer. The Court mentions something that many Courts have brought up before – that the only way we can deter police from randomly stopping citizens without any real reason and running random warrant checks, is to suppress evidence that is obtained from these illegal and unethical stops. The handgun that the Officer found on Torres’ is not relevant here because the stop and search of Torres was unjustified in itself.

The State argued that even if the initial seizure was unlawful, that the officer was justified in the detention as a result of discovering a warrant.  The State contended that the warrant was an independent ground for the seizure.  The defense argued that since there was no intervening act of free will of the defendant the discovery of the warrant did not purge the taint of the initial unlawful seizure.  In its response to the State petition for certiorari, the defense argued that the question did not warrant review by the United States Supreme Court and was not properly raised in the State Court to permit appellate review.

The next step

It will be interesting to see how this case progresses as it moves onto the United States Supreme Court. The original reason for the stop did not justify the continued detention.  Recently, I met with a client who was seized based on the community care taker exception, sleeping in his car.  Once the officer determined that was all he was doing, he did not have a right to engage the defendant in questioning in hopes to discover that he was drunk.  The Court should find that the seizure in Torres violated the Fourth Amendment if it grants the petition for certiorari.

You can read more about suppressed evidence in a very different type of case that I wrote about regarding a protective sweep.

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