Parking While Black

Court Grapples with “Parking While Black” Scenario

The 7th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals is hearing arguments in a case that involved police officers searching a parked car.

Sounds pretty routine?  Well, this particular search, in the opinion of at least one law professor, this case involves “an egregious instance of police aggressively targeting black motorists who may be illegally parked”

Police can justify a detention of a person if they witness an infraction of the law.  If that detention leads to the discovery of evidence of a crime, that evidence will likely be held admissible.  This is the common, everyday scenario where an officer observes perhaps a traffic violation in a moving vehicle, stops that vehicle, makes contact with the driver and then based on contact with the driver or based (let’s say the driver is acting intoxicated) on a view of the inside of the vehicle (maybe they see an open container of alcohol or evidence of drug use), develops probable cause to search the car further or even arrest the driver.

In the situation before the 7th Court, the police saw a vehicle which had parked too close to a crosswalk.  Based on that infraction, they parked their patrol cars in a manner to block the suspect car in, and then made contact with the car’s occupants.  They observed a back seat passenger with a gun and subsequently arrested him for unlawful possession of the firearm.  That defendant sought to exclude the gun from evidence under the theory that it was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  A three-person panel of 7th Circuit judges had previously ruled that the officer’s detention and search were justified and not in violation of the Fourth Amendment, but that decision has been vacated and the entire court will hear the issue on re-argument.

The crux of the matter is whether or not this court will give a stamp of approval to the police detaining and searching for violations of essentially such de minimus statutes as municipal parking ordinances.  No one denies the police’s right and authority to pass by a parked car and shine a flashlight inside.  But to block a parked car with trio of patrol vehicles, essentially creating an instant detention of the vehicle’s occupants, should that be given the judicial thumbs-up?

Although 7th Circuit decisions are not binding here in Texas, nevertheless a case to keep one’s eye on.  What appears in another federal Circuit one day may certainly appear in the 5th Circuit or a Texas state court, or even the United States Supreme Court, another day.

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