It never ceases to amaze us the despicable lengths law enforcement officers are willing to go through to establish probable cause for a search. Throughout the years, we have heard horror stories about these bullheaded, sarcastic bastards using every ridiculous means possible to destroy the property of citizens in hopes of making a big drug bust. Fortunately, there are those particularly interesting situations in which despite the officer's raging hard on and gnashing teeth, the search comes up empty handed and a lawsuit follows.
That is exactly the deep shit situation a pair of Utah state troopers have found themselves drowning in ever since giving 54-year-old Sherida Felders a savage roadside shakedown based on her possession of air fresheners, religious paraphernalia and a couple packages of beef jerky. Now, two law enforcement weasels are left wishing they had never messed with a citizen as litigious as she is God-fearing.
The whole crooked affair got started one November morning when Utah state trooper Brian Bairett, who was reportedly running a speed trap along Interstate 15, made the decision to stop and harass Ms. Felders and her two teenage passengers. It was at the driver's side window where super trooper Bairett unleashed his Podunk police skills and profiled Felders as a drug trafficker. "She was nervous, she would not maintain eye contact, a strong odor of air freshener was coming from her vehicle, and affixed to her car was a license plate ring with "Jesus" written on it," according to court documents.
Based on these bogus criteria, Trooper Bairett gave Felder the third degree about having drugs in the vehicle, specifically accusing her of trafficking cocaine. However, the raucous scene did not getting interesting until after Felder did exactly what she was supposed to do in that situation and refuse a search. That is when a frustrated Bairett called in a drug-sniffing dog named Duke and his handler Deputy Jeff Malcom and proceed to set off a chain of events that would ultimately castrate the egos of the two officers right there on the highway.
"This lady -- you know, I walk up to the car and I see air fresheners in the center console and... I start talking to her, you know, just 'So where, you heading to?' 'Oh going to Colorado,' blah, blah, blah," said Trooper Bairett. "To me, I've got probable cause to search the vehicle without her permission or not, so I figured the dog would be the best route to go right now."
In a dashcam transcript of the two officer's interaction with one another, it is clear that Trooper Bairett is convinced there are drugs in the vehicle because he tells Deputy Malcom that the two teenagers have "tats" and they are on their way to Colorado - implying that everyone with a tattoo who visits the Centennial State is a drug user.
However, before conducting the search, Bairett forced the two teenagers to get out, and as the dashcam transcript shows, he made sure to keep the door open.
"Nice of them to leave the door open for you," said Deputy Malcom.
"Yeah it was, wasn't it?" replied Trooper Bairett.
This underhanded maneuver was apparently a set up aimed at getting the narco hound to jump inside the vehicle, which it did without sounding off an alert. It wasn't until the dog was inside the vehicle that it alerted to the center console because of two packages of beef jerky, followed by another alert on the driver's door, which turned up nothing. For the next two hours, both Trooper Bairett and Deputy Malcom searched Felder's vehicle, which yielded no drugs - not a single seed or trace of white powder. She was clean... and she had the number of a good attorney.
Although a lower court ruled the search was improper and refused to grant immunity to the officers involved, Deputy Malcom filed an appeal, which was ruled against last week.
A United States Appeals Court ruled on Friday that not only was the officer's vile display of police work a violation of Ms. Felders Constitutional rights, but they are also grounds for her to peruse further legal action.
"We agree with the district court that Malcom did not have probable cause to search the car prior to Duke's alert and that the law was then clearly established that, absent probable cause, facilitating a dog's entry into a vehicle during a dog sniff constitutes an unconstitutional search," wrote Judge Timothy M. Tymkovich in his verdict. "Taking the facts in the light most favorable to Felders, we conclude that fact questions exist regarding the timing of Duke's alert and Malcom's possible facilitation prior to an alert. As a result, we affirm the district court's decision to deny Malcom summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds."
Deputy Malcom pleaded with the court that he was simply on the scene assisting another officer, who believed there was probable cause, but the judge told him his action were his responsibility and he should have known better.
"The facts Malcom knew -- Felders's nervousness and unwillingness to look at Bairett, possible inconsistencies in travel narratives, a single air freshener, and a religious license plate frame -- could justify no more than reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigative stop," Judge Tymkovich continued. "A reasonable officer would not conclude that Felders was hauling drugs based on the statements or behavior of either Felders or her two teenage passengers."