Vigilant Border Protection

By December 16, 2011Drug Crimes

Fort Worth Drug Crimes AttorneysOut near El Paso, the law enforcement folks are pretty anal about boundaries.  Apparently, their “border-protection” mentality applies equally to law enforcement officers from neighboring jurisdictions.  Below is a summary from a federal quarrel between officers of El Paso and Hudspeth Counties.  While it isn’t directly on point for this blog, it is tangentially related to Texas criminal law and it has a little bit of 4th amendment seizure flavor to it.

Short v. West, Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals – November 2, 2011

Appellant was an officer in the El Paso Police Department, (EPPD) assigned to a narcotics task force for the 34th Judicial District. The 34th Judicial District includes both El Paso and Hudspeth counties. While conducting a task force related traffic stop in Hudspeth County, appellant encountered a Hudspeth County Sheriff Department (HCSD) deputy who asked him what he was doing there.  Appellant identified himself to the satisfaction of the deputy and told her that EPPD task force officers were working in Hudspeth County.  The deputy contacted her dispatcher who in turn called Hudspeth County Sheriff West and told him that EPPD officers were performing traffic stops in Hudspeth County.  Sheriff West ordered his deputies and find out whether the EPPD officers were, in fact, law enforcement officers.  Sheriff West also ordered his deputies to round up the EPPD task force officers and escort them to his office.

A lieutenant in the HCSD located appellant’s supervisor, who produced identification showing him to be an officer with the EPPD and the task force.  Appellant’s supervisor ordered him and the other task force members to return to El Paso County.  While on the way back to El Paso County, appellant and several task force members were stopped and surrounded by HCSD deputies.  The HCSD deputies ordered appellant and the other task force members to go to a nearby HCSD substation.  They were told that they would be arrested if they failed to comply.  Appellant and the task force members went to the HCSD substation where Sheriff West complained that he had not been notified of the task activities in his county. He then told the task force officers that they were free to leave.  Appellant sued Sheriff West under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating his rights under the Fourth Amendment.

The court held that Sheriff West was not entitled to qualified immunity.  First, the court found that appellant was seized for Fourth Amendment purposes. The HCSD deputies surrounded the task force officers’ vehicles preventing them from returning to El Paso County.  In addition, appellant was threatened with arrest if he did not accompany the deputies to the HCSD substation.  A reasonable person would not feel free to ignore such a show of force and go about his business.

Second, the court found that such a seizure was objectively unreasonable.  Sheriff West ordered the task force officers to be detained and brought to the HCSD substation so he could personally examine them. This was not likely to quickly confirm or dispel his suspicions as to whether or not the task force officers were legitimate law enforcement officers.  There were less intrusive ways to accomplish this.  Sheriff West could have contacted the EPPD Chief, whom he knew or he could have run the license plates on the task force officers’ vehicles. It was unreasonable to not recognize or pursue these options as alternatives to seizing Short.