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Court permits stop of a dark blue car despite lookout for a tan car

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Bill of Rights (Image from the public domain.)

During the 2002 Washington sniper manhunt, too many police abandoned the Fourth Amendment by stopping white truck after white truck, based on erroneous eyewitness tips. However, the now-convicted sniper defendants were found in a non-white sedan. (Less than around a half hour after the last sniper shooting, I arrived at my YMCA destination, where at the same time the now-convicted sniper defendants apparently were working out at the same gym.)

Fast forward to 2005. District of Columbia police officers heard a radio call for an armed robbery in the 1300 block of Florida Avenue NE, including a description of the suspects and their car. The radio call described the suspects’ vehicle as "a Crown Vic Ford model, tan on the side, black on top with smoked-out windows, year between 94 and 97." (Emphasis added.) U.S. v. Abdus-Price, ___ F.3d ___ (D.C. Cir., March 11, 2008).

Around forty minutes later, based on the foregoing radio call, the police stopped the following car within two blocks of the robbery location: "Ford Crown Victoria with dark tinted windows, dark blue in color with a white driver’s-side rear door," Defendant Abdus-Price ran away when told he would be patted down, was found with a handgun by a patdown after being apprehended, and got prosecuted and convicted for unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition by a felon, under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).

Surely, the court should have suppressed this car stop, lest all Crown Victoria drivers become victims of police abuse. Moreover, the police stopped Mr. Abdus-Price’s car in a low-rent area within two blocks of the most major route for reaching downtown Washington, D.C., from Baltimore. Consequently, this case outcome has negative implications even for mere tourists coming to town to visit the Lincoln Memorial.

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia forgave the color disparity, reasoning that the color could have been mistaken in the evening light, and that at least the stopped car, like the description of the suspects car (the description undoubtedly was called in by a purported civilian witness to the alleged crime) had darkened windows.

It is likely that Mr. Abdus was not even in the car that contained the alleged robbers. The alleged robbery victims were unable to make a positive identification of either Mr. Abdus nor his passenger. But what is such an error between cops and a court? The court affirmed the stop and conviction under Terry v. Ohio, 392 US 1 (1968). Terry is one more tool for police to trample on individual liberties.

Granted, some similarities existed between the description of the physical appearance of Mr. Abdus and his passenger. However, the cops did not see what the occupants of Mr. Abdus-Price’s car looked like until they unlawfully stopped Mr. Abdus’s car in the first place. This poorly-decided opinion will only embolden police to make more illegal car stops than they already make. Criminal defense lawyers, for future criminal defense cases, at least can hang onto Abdus Price‘s characterization of the affair as a slight color discrepancy (since when can tan be confused with dark blue?). 

Jon Katz.