Here’s something you don’t see every day: A federal court of appeals overturning a criminal conviction on the ground that the trial judge’s finding that a police officer testified truthfully was “clearly erroneous.” And the decision was made possible by a new source of evidence that couldn’t be contradicted: the officer’s own statements from a dashboard recording of the stop from the officer’s cruiser.
The case is United States v. Prokupek, and it involves a traffic stop made at an exit following the posting of fake signs for a drug checkpoint on a highway. Officers put up a sign indicating that there was a drug checkpoint aheard, and they then parked their cars by the nearest exit. Prokupek was driving on the highway, passed the sign, and then pulled over into the exit lane of the highway. At the end of the exit lane, he pulled over on to a country road and was stopped by the police. The police brought out the dogs, the dogs alerted to drugs in the car, and a search of the car yielded 151 grams of methamphetamine in the car.
Under Eighth Circuit precedent, the police cannot make a traffic stop based solely on the fact that a driver exits an interstate after seeing a sign indicating that a drug checkpoint lies ahead. United States v. Carpenter, 462 F.3d 981, 986-87 (8th Cir. 2006). Instead, the officers have to actually identify a traffic violation and establish probable cause of that violation to justify the stop. The question in the case is whether the police had probable cause to believe Prokupek had violated a traffic law, which would justify a lawful stop of the car. There were two candidates for possible violations: First, failure to signal a lane change to enter the exit lane; and second, failure to signal a turn to turn on to the country road at the end of the exit lane. To make matters more interesting, there were also two sources of facts: First, the recording from the dashboard camera, and second, the officer’s testimony at the suppression hearing.
According to the dashboard camera, one of the troopers told Prokupek the following when he was pulled over:
The reason you got pulled over is because when you exited the interstate you didn’t signal—you didn’t signal your exit [inaudible]. You signaled your turn, but you didn’t signal—exit—signal when you were getting on the exit.
At the suppression hearing, that same trooper had different testimony:
Trooper Estwick testified that the probable cause for the traffic stop was Prokupek’s failure to signal the vehicle’s turn from the interstate exit ramp on to the county road. Counsel for Prokupek pressed Trooper Estwick on the inconsistency between his testimony at the suppression hearing and his contemporaneous statement, captured by his cruiser’s dashboard camera, that Prokupek had signaled the vehicle’s turn on to the county road but that he had stopped the vehicle based on Prokupek’s failure to signal the vehicle’s exit from the interstate. Trooper Estwick initially demurred, repeating several times that he stopped Prokupek simply “for failing to signal” and insisting that “I don’t understand what your question is. I really don’t.” Finally, when Prokupek’s counsel again asked him if he stopped Prokupek because “[h]e failed to signal his northbound turn onto the [county] roadway,” Trooper Estwick responded, “Yes. He failed to signal,” and further testified, “I couldn’t see [Prokupek] when he left the Interstate. . . . I didn’t see him leave the Interstate, sir.”
The magistrate judge found the trooper’s testimony at the suppression hearing credible. The district judge, on de novo review of the record, found the testimony confusing but concluded that Prokupek had failed to signal at one of the two points. In a decision a few weeks ago, the Eighth Circuit sent the case back to the district court to clarify its factual finding in light of the government’s concession that the trooper was not in a position to see the signaling into the exit lane. The government asked the district court to reopen the record and have a new suppression hearing, but the district court denied that request and entered a supplemental order that the trooper’s testimony at the hearing was credible and therefore Prokupek had failed to signal a turn onto the country road.
In a published opinion handed down today, the Eighth Circuit reversed (Gruender, joined by Melloy and Riley), holding that the district court’s finding the officer’s testimony credible was “clearly erroneous” in light of the contrary dashboard recording:
Although a factual finding based on a determination that a witness is credible “can virtually never be clear error,” when “[d]ocuments or objective evidence . . . contradict the witness’ story; or the story itself [is] so internally inconsistent or implausible on its face that a reasonable factfinder would not credit it . . . the court of appeals may well find clear error even in a finding purportedly based on a credibility determination.” Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, N.C., 470 U.S. 564, 575 (1985). . . .
The district court’s factual finding that “Prokupek failed to signal his turn before turning from the exit ramp on to the county road” is supported only by the court’s determination that Trooper Estwick’s testimony at the suppression hearing to that effect was credible. Because Trooper Estwick’s testimony at the hearing is so clearly and affirmatively contradicted by his own statement at the time of the events, in the absence of any explanation for this contradiction that is supported by the record, we conclude that Trooper Estwick’s after-the-fact testimony at the suppression hearing is “implausible on its face,” Anderson, 470 U.S. at 575, and we are left with the “firm and definite conviction that a mistake has been made,” United States v. Pickar, 616 F.3d 821, 827 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting United States v. Hines, 387 F.3d 690, 694 (8th Cir. 2004)). We therefore hold that the district court’s finding that Prokupek failed to signal the turn on to the county road is clearly erroneous.
. . . The Government proffers no alternative justification for the traffic stop. Therefore, the stop violated the Fourth Amendment, see Prouse, 440 U.S. at 653, and the drugs and drug paraphernalia that eventually were seized are tainted fruit of this violation and must be suppressed, see Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 488 (1963). Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s denial of the motions to suppress, and vacate Prokupek and McGlothlen’s convictions . . .
Notably, it’s hard to see how this result could have happened without the dashboard camera. It was the “objective evidence” of the recording of the stop that enabled the court to find the officer’s contrary testimony to be literally unbelievable.
Thanks to Derek Muller for the link.