Courts Wrestle With Police Officer Credibility Cases in Washington, DC and Iowa explore different extremes of whether police traffic stop testimony is always believable.
When a court judges whether a motorist is guilty of a traffic offense, the evidence frequently rests on the word of a police officer against that of the accused driver. In such cases, the edge is automatically given to law enforcement, even if there is reason to believe officers may twist or fabricate the facts.
The US District Court for the District of Columbia on Friday confronted the question in evaluating an October 21, 2011 traffic stop in Washington. Officer Kenneth Thompkins stopped Maurice Williams in the 6300 block of Georgia Avenue NW, claiming he had seen Williams enter his white Chevrolet Traverse and drive away without wearing a seatbelt. Thompkins had been following Williams, who insists not only that he was wearing a seatbelt, but that there also was good reason to believe that Thompkins would not have been able to see whether he was wearing one from his position.
Under court precedent, an officer's subjective motivation for stopping someone is irrelevant. What matters is whether he can articulate a reason to suspect a crime, no matter how minor, was being committed. According to Judge Beryl A. Howell, Williams testified "convincingly" that he was wearing a seatbelt.
"The court finds defendant Maurice Williams' testimony on this issue credible," Judge Howell wrote. "Nevertheless, the officer was unswerving in his affirmation that, through the back tinted window of the car, he could see that the defendant did not fasten his seatbelt."
Both witnesses were found to be equally credible, but the edge was given to the policeman because the courts allow him to be wrong.
"Crediting defendant Maurice Williams' testimony as true, the hearing established no explanation for Officer Thompkins' otherwise mistaken factual assessment that the defendant was not wearing his seatbelt, other than the possibility that the tinted back window, combined with the lack of color differentiation between the seatbelt and the defendant's shirt, made it appear as if the seatbelt were unfastened," Howell ruled. "As in Whren, even if Officer Thompkins were mistaken about the seatbelt being unfastened, it was objectively reasonable, even if mistaken, for him to believe a traffic violation had occurred and, therefore, the stop of Maurice Williams' vehicle was valid under the Fourth Amendment."
It may take a dashboard video camera to establish what actually happened during a traffic stop. In a July 11 ruling, the Iowa Court of Appeals overturned Blake M. Wilkerson's conviction for driving under the influence of marijuana after determining that Ringgold County Sheriff's Deputy Arends lied about the traffic stop he conducted on January 11, 2011. At a hearing, Arends testified that he saw Wilkerson's truck "weave within its own lane" and cross the center divider.
According to the three-judge panel, the only violation seen in the video was Wilkerson's Fourth Amendment right not to be seized without probable cause.
"From our de novo review of the patrol car's recording, it is apparent the recording does not show repeated weaving between boundary lines or sustained, inappropriate crossing of the center line while climbing the hill immediately prior to the stop," Chief Judge Larry J. Eisenhauer wrote. "Rather, based on the position of the always-visible taillights, Wilkerson's driving is smooth, nondescript, and unremarkable."
Because the video contradicted the officer's testimony, the court reversed Wilkerson's conviction. View a copy of the Iowa decision (130k PDF). The DC case is available in a 250k PDF at the source link below.