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2nd Circuit: Cops Can't Read Motorists' Mail During Traffic Stop

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Over the years, we've read our fair share of qualified immunity appeals involving police officers. The cops usually win.

The problem with these appeals is that -- even when they are in the wrong -- cops are entitled to qualified immunity unless they violate a right that was clearly-established at the time of the incident. That sometimes produces absurd results. (Like the Ninth Circuit ruling that tasing a pregnant woman who wouldn't sign a speeding ticket counts as excessive force, but the cops were entitled to qualified immunity because the right to a shock-free pregnancy wasn't clearly-established at the time.)

The silver lining, if you'd care to call it that, is that courts are forced to clearly establish rights for future cases. And that's what happened this week in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

In 2007, Vermont state police officer Daniel Trottier stopped Marie Winfield for speeding on I-98. According to the Second Circuit, Trottier "was inspired to search the car by certain things he deemed suspicious: The passenger, Winfield's son Jason, avoided making eye contact with him; and Winfield was eating a Powerbar 'in what he regarded as a hurried manner.'"

(A lack of eye contact and an appetite! Who wouldn't be suspicious?)

Trottier asked Winfield if she would exit the car to talk to him, though he advised her that she wasn't required to do so. Winfield got out of her car and answered his questions. In the course of their exchange, Trottier asked if Winfield had guns, bombs, large sums of the money, or anything that he "should know about" in her car. Winfield said no, and offered to let Trottier search the car.

It turns out she was telling the truth. While Trottier was searching the car for "nothing in particular," he came across a piece of mail in the car, which he opened and read. Trottier didn't find anything illegal during the search, so he issued the speeding citation and let Winfield go. Winfield then sued Trottier, alleging that he violated her Fourth Amendment rights by reading her mail.

Finding that Trottier's search exceeded the scope of Winfield's consent, the district court denied qualified immunity. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court's ruling this week.

The silver lining we promised you is the clearly-established right for future cases. The appellate panel explained:

It is a Fourth Amendment violation when a police officer reads a suspect's private papers, the text of which is not in plain view, while conducting a search authorized solely by the suspect's generalized consent to search the area in which the papers are found.

Because no prior case in the Second Circuit had reached that conclusion, Trottier's actions were "objectively legally reasonable in light of the legal rules that were clearly-established at the time." Going forward however, cops in similar situations will not receive qualified immunity.

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