It’s happened yet again. More innocent people ordered out of their cars due to police mistakenly believing the car was stolen – this time in Frisco, Texas. Police held a Black couple at gunpoint and handcuffed their son after mistyping their car’s license plate into their system, leading them to falsely believe the car the family was driving was stolen.
“We made a mistake,” Frisco Police Chief David Shilson said in the department’s later statement. “Our department will not hide from its mistakes. “Instead, we will learn from them.”
The last video I made on this issue was from Lehi, Colorado. Generally speaking, without more, police officers should not be aiming firearms at people. Reasonableness is the key. Aiming guns based on clerical entries and government policy is rarely going to be reasonable. Doing so should be based on actual perceived threats presented by the persons with whom they’re dealing.
Have you seen these videos where innocent people get pulled over by the police due to a mistaken belief that their car is stolen? Then the police point their firearms at them and treat them like a criminal, before realizing the mistake. That can’t be constitutional, can it?
In April of this year, several people, including one child, were pulled over by the Lehi City Police when an officer said he received an alert and confirmed from dispatch that a vehicle had been stolen after running a license plate. The only problem was, it was a mistake. The vehicle was not stolen. The department has not explained the reason the officer ran their license plate in the first place.
They get pulled over and next thing you know, they see police officers approaching with guns pointed at them. One of the vehicle’s occupants pulled out his cell phone and began recording the incident. One thing led to another. The media began to report on it. KUTV reported that a high-risk traffic stop was performed on the vehicle, because according to the police statement, “routine protocol is to have guns pointed at the vehicle during a high-risk vehicle stop.”
A statement released Monday by the Central Utah Emergency Communications Center revealed that the dispatcher failed to recognize that the flagged information they reported back to the officer was actually a NCIC wanted HIT which was verified only by a partial vehicle identification number taken down in the incident which was never confirmed. The incomplete VIN of the stolen vehicle was identical to a string of seven numbers from the VIN of the vehicle that was wrongly pulled over. So, “the dispatcher failed to see that the actual plate number given was not stolen,” according to the Lehi Police Department statement. They said they have taken corrective action with the dispatcher involved.
So, the vehicle stopped was not stolen, nor was it displaying a stolen plate. The vehicle occupants were released from custody after about 20 minutes and then left the scene in their vehicle. Officials of the Lehi City Police Department called the incident “rare” and “unfortunate.” But this is not an isolated occurrence. This happens all the time.
Aurora, CO: A father records from a distance as cops approach his wife, guns drawn. His three year old child, still in the vehicle. This woman thought it was just going to be a regular traffic stop. But she was wrong. Bodycam footage shows the officers discussing the fact that they’re going to perform a so-called high-risk stop, with guns drawn, as per their department policy. This was apparently the result of officers marking the wrong box on a form. The vehicle had been previously repossessed and then reclaimed. But on the form it was marked stolen by mistake.
But that wasn’t the only time. It happened to another family. A woman with her car full of kids was in a parking lot in Aurora, looking for a nail salon, when all of a sudden police descended on her, allegedly because a license plate reader flagged her car as stolen. The family in the car, kids included, were made to exit the vehicle and lay on the ground.
The car was not stolen. Another mistake. What was the mistake this time? The actual stolen vehicle flagged by the plate reader was a motorcycle with the same number – but from a different state. So yet again: innocent people in a non-stolen car; police make the mistake; yet the innocent people get guns pointed at them. Why? They say it’s their policy. Officer safety, of course.
Raymore, MO: In August of 2022, a Raymore, Missouri couple was held at gunpoint by the Raymore Police. The video went viral first on Tik Tok and then hit the TV news.
So this was another mistake situation. Their son’s truck had been stolen just days before. But then it was recovered. The police then failed to take the truck off the stolen vehicle registry. So they got the “high risk stop” or “felony stop” treatment. Like the other victims, they were pissed and no longer back the blue types. This couple’s son is actually an attorney and he’s apparently pissed too – and summed it up well.
Fairfax, VA: In October of 2022, a mom and her 5 year old and 1 year old daughters were on their way to Walmart in Fairfax County, Virginia when they noticed a police car trailing them. Next thing you know, the vehicle pulled up beside them, then the police car rammed them, the police car striking their car head-on. Guns were drawn and she was handcuffed and her kids were put in a police car. Police later just said she ended up not being the person they were looking for. Another mistake. Apparently the vehicle was listed as “wanted.” But it wasn’t.
Norwalk, CT: It can even happen to the General Manager of the Yankees, Brian Cashman. Same old story. His Jeep was stolen and then recovered. But government employees did what government employees do. They just kept the stolen classification and then gave him the “high risk stop” treatment at gunpoint. At least for a few minutes before recognizing him and kissing his ass.
This is obviously far from an isolated incident. This apparently happens all the time. There are more examples out there. What do they all have in common? Innocent people – could be your father, mother, sister, wife – all held at gunpoint by your government agents, not in response to anything they did, nor any threat presented by them. Rather, it’s just their policy.
What happened to protect and serve? These are the people police officers have sworn to protect. All to often, those individuals are victimized in the interests of officer safety. In all of these incidents, though the police will apologize, they say it’s policy. Because it’s a “high risk” or “felony” stop. But is that enough to aim a gun at someone? I argue that it’s not.
What’s the law? Here, with Lehi, Utah being in the 10th Circuit, we have two real cases that happened that the courts have contrasted:
In Maresca v. Barnalillo County (10th. Cir. 2015), officers at gunpoint ordered a family out of a suspected stolen truck. The officers forced the family of two parents and three minor children to exit the vehicle and lie face down on the highway. The officers first removed the parents, who pleaded with the officers that there had been a mistake, that they should check the father’s license, and that there were children and a dog in the car. Even though one officer on the scene considered the situation “a little weird,” the officers ignored the parents’ repeated pleas to recheck whether the vehicle was in fact stolen and proceeded to order the three children out one-by-one.
The officers then handcuffed each family member (except the youngest) and locked them in separate patrol cars, keeping their weapons trained on the family throughout despite full compliance with their orders. The court found the forceful measures unnecessary and unconstitutional, primarily because the officers had no reason to believe the family possessed firearms.
Contrast that with a more recent case, Hemry v. Ross (10th Cir. 2023), where it was reported to the officers making the stop that the driver was a fugitive murderer. The court noted that in the case of a suspected stolen car, there’s nothing specific indicating that the car’s occupant may be armed. But where the driver is believed to be an actual murderer, officers acted reasonable in holding the man at gunpoint during the stop.
The point is, without more, police officers should not be aiming firearms at people. Reasonableness is the key. Aiming guns based on clerical entries and government policy is rarely going to be reasonable. Doing so should be based on actual perceived threats presented by the persons with whom they’re dealing.
There is a video showing a female cop suddenly pull her pistol and point it at a driver’s head during a routine traffic stop. Then there was a subsequent video providing commentary and advice about the situation. However, the information was incorrect. There’s unfortunately a lot of misinformation floating around about the rights of vehicle occupants during traffic stops. It’s important to know your actual rights and not misinformation that could really cause you some serious problems.
What are your basic constitutional rights at a traffic stop?
The Fourth Amendment prohibits police officers from prolonging a traffic stop beyond the time necessary to investigate (and write a ticket for) a traffic violation unless the officers have reasonable suspicion that the stopped vehicle’s occupants are engaging in other crimes. Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348, 354-56 (2015).
Officers may detain the driver only for the time necessary to complete the tasks associated with the reason for the stop. The Supreme Court has provided a list of acceptable tasks that are connected generally to safety and driver responsibility:
Officers will usually question a driver about the traffic infraction; they will run the driver’s license plate; they will request and review the vehicle’s registration and insurance; they will check for outstanding warrants; and lastly they will write a ticket. Officers also commonly question drivers about their travel plans. So long as they do so during the time that they undertake the traffic-related tasks for the infraction that justifies the stop (Arizona v. Johnson), officers may also ask questions about whether the driver has drugs or weapons in the car, or even walk a drug-sniffing dog around the car (Illinois v. Caballes). These unrelated tasks turn a reasonable stop into an unreasonable seizure if it “prolongs” the stop. Officers may not avoid this rule by “slow walking” the traffic-related aspects of the stop to get more time to investigate other potential crimes.
Once the traffic-related basis for the stop ends (or reasonably should have ended), the officer must justify any further “seizure” on a reasonable suspicion that the driver is committing those other crimes. See Hernandez v. Boles (6th Cir. 2020).
Additionally, “a police officer may as a matter of course order the driver of a lawfully stopped car to exit his vehicle.” Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408, 410, 117 S.Ct. 882, 137 L.Ed.2d 41 (1997) (citing Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 98 S.Ct. 330, 54 L.Ed.2d 331 (1977) (per curiam)). That rule, the justification for which is officer safety, extends to passengers, as well. Wilson, 519 U.S. at 414–15, 117 S.Ct. 882. (United States v. Vaughan, 700 F.3d 705 (4th Cir. 2012)).
As for the 9th Circuit, where this encounter took place, “pointing guns at persons who are compliant and present no danger is a constitutional violation.” Thompson v. Rahr, 885 F.3d 582 (9th Cir. 2018) (citing Baird v. Renbarger , 576 F.3d 340, 346 (7th Cir. 2009)).
We do not discount the concern for officer safety when facing a potentially volatile situation. But where the officers have an unarmed felony suspect under control, where they easily could have handcuffed the suspect while he was sitting on the squad car, and where the suspect is not in close proximity to an accessible weapon, a gun to the head constitutes excessive force.