On Friday, July 21, 2023, legendary civil rights attorney John Burton and Hadsell Stormer partner Morgan Ricketts appeared at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal in Pasadena to argue for victims of LAPD’s excessive police tactics at traffic stops. Burton and Hadsell Stormer attorneys have brought numerous cases challenging the unconstitutional use of extreme, violent measures during routine traffic stops in which a car has a mismatched license plate, or a license plate that has been reported as associated with a stolen car. This important issue has been overlooked for far too long, and the LAPD in particular has deliberately ignored clearly established Ninth Circuit law to continue to terrorize hundreds of mainly innocent drivers each year, with little justification.
Recently, a Texas incident received high profile national news coverage:
Trigger warning: the video is disturbing and should not be watched by sensitive viewers or those who may see themselves in the family. At the end, a grown man can be heard sobbing, due to the fear he went through for his young son’s life.
In one of these unconstitutionally excessive stops, police order the driver out of their vehicle at gunpoint – usually with multiple officers pointing guns directly at the driver, and often with a police helicopter circling menacingly overhead – force them to lie prone in the street or kneel down, handcuff them, and place them in the back of a police car. This is all done without probable cause and before beginning to investigate whether the car is actually stolen. Many people are utterly traumatized by having their lives threatened at gunpoint, and some require therapy and medication to deal with the terror they’ve been through. Many report nightmares and symptoms of paranoia, fearing that police may break into their homes and hurt them. Many find themselves unable to drive for a period of time, or avoid the part of the city where they were stopped – sometimes for years afterwards. Seeing police routinely triggers intrusive and frightening thoughts after an experience like this.
The reality is that traffic stops generally, and traffic stops of suspected stolen cars, have long been rumored to be “among the most dangerous activities an officer can perform.” But police departments themselves have data that shows this is just not true. It’s never been true. Traffic stops – which generally do not involve these extreme measures – are actually incredibly safe. Very few officers are ever killed at traffic stops, comparatively – but those that do get outsize attention, and videos are passed around police training academies as though they are representative. It would be as counterproductive as redirecting all our resources from preventing car accidents to preventing death by lightning strikes. The reality is, far more police officers are killed in traffic accidents than at stops of stolen vehicles, and far more police officers are assaulted and injured when they respond to disturbance calls or transport prisoners than when they pull over drivers. That’s in absolute numbers – as in, even though exponentially more traffic stops are conducted than prisoner transport each year, prisoner transport is still responsible for more officer injuries than traffic stops.
If officers were very likely to be dealing with a felon when they find a suspected stolen vehicle, the issue might never have gained the attention it has. But the reality is that up to 75% of such stops reveal that the car is not stolen at all. Many reasons exist why innocent drivers can end up triggering a stolen car investigation: a license plate thief has stolen their license plate and replaced it with that of a stolen car; the DMV has issued them the wrong plate by mistake; police or an automated device read their actual license plate incorrectly; police have entered the wrong license plate into the database used to keep track of stolen cars; the owner reported their car stolen and either the owner or police failed to update the database once it was found; or they have rented a car but then for one reason or another, failed to renew their payment or their credit card did not go through, so the rental company reported the car stolen.
The Ninth Circuit, which covers California, is fortunate to have longstanding strong precedents such as Green and Washington that clearly prohibit this type of behavior by police, and put them on notice that such conduct in unconstitutional. This is important because without those precedents, officers get a free pass known as qualified immunity. For this reason, victims in other Circuits that do not have such clear precedent may find themselves without a viable remedy in court. Indeed, even within the Ninth Circuit, some trial courts have shown reluctance to accept the clarity of Washington and Green.
And that’s exactly why we found ourselves at the Ninth Circuit two weeks ago. You can watch John Burton’s masterful oral argument on Youtube here.