Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Wrong place, wrong time, bad search

Mistaken identity. Who doesn't worry about being in the wrong place at the wrong time, especially if you are the wrong person? It happened to this guy.

The case is United States v. Watson, decided on May 21. Watson was approached by police officers who were looking for Chauncy Butler, a robbery suspect. The officer testified that Watson looked like Butler, so they searched him and found 27 bags of crack on his person. The district court granted Watson's motion to suppress on the basis that the officers did not reasonably believe that Watson was Butler, and the Court of Appeals (Calabresi, Hall and Rakoff [D.J.]) affirms. Watson is a free man.

The suppression hearing established that Butler was a black male, 5'10" to 6 feet tall, 19 years old, black hair and 155 to 180 pounds. Watson is six feet two inches tall, weighed 180 pounds and was 25 years old. At the hearing, Judge Scheindlin credited the testimony of Watson and his companion over that of the police officers. She ruled from the bench as follows:

Vaccaro testified that he saw Watson clearly and still believed that Watson was Butler. Although Vaccaro previously arrested Butler and spent time with him, he admitted that he was not sure whether or not Watson was Butler until after he ran Watson's fingerprints because “on a yearly basis [he] arrests or comes into contact with over a hundred individuals.” I do not find this testimony credible. Butler and Watson do not look [a]like. This is evident from a comparison of the photographs of Butler and Watson, as well as my observation of Watson at the hearing. In addition to their different facial features, skin tone, height, and weight, Watson is over five years older than Butler. Vaccaro’s generic description of the similarities between Watson and Butler undermines the contention that he reasonably believed them to be the same person.

The government argues that it would have been illogical for the officers to ask for identification prior to searching Watson, but I reach the opposite conclusion: It would have been illogical and imprudent not to ask for identification. While Vaccaro’s belief that Watson was Butler might have been the basis for the stop, it was not the basis for the search.
The trial court's factual findings are not clearly erroneous. Judge Scheindlin did not believe the officer's testimony that he could not tell the difference between Watson and Butler. She also held that no reasonable officer could have so believed at the time of the search. The Court of Appeals says, "This legal conclusion was based on the factual finding that Watson and Butler simply 'do not look alike,'" and these two men in fact did not look alike. Factual findings are for the trial courts, not the appellate courts. The Government loses the appeal.

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