Question: Can peace officers rely on probable cause based on information from Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents if their own pretextual reason to stop falls through?
Quick Answer: Yes, officers may rely on probable cause based on information obtained by fellow officers or DEA agents in order to conduct a stop even if the officers’ pretextual reason to make the stop falls through.
Facts: The DEA was in the process of investigating a large-scale drug ring and Medicare fraud scheme. After tracking down a suspect through surveillance and wiretaps, DEA agents provided Michigan state troopers with descriptions of the car and driver and details regarding the investigation. Agents asked troopers to develop independent probable cause so the suspect wouldn’t know she was under federal investigation. The troopers pulled over the suspect, Katrina Lyons, who was driving a minivan with Alabama plates, for a vision obstruction violation due to an air freshener and bead necklaces hanging from the rearview mirror. However, the officers mistakenly applied the vision obstruction statute. If the car is registered in another state, Michigan’s statute governing vision obstruction doesn’t apply and, therefore, troopers did not have a valid reason to stop the car.
Why this case is important: The DEA had probable cause to stop Lyons, but the troopers relied on an incorrect belief that the driver was committing a traffic offense to effectuate a pretext stop. Here, even though the pretext stop was bad, the underlying probable cause from the DEA was still a sufficient basis to make the stop.
Keep in mind: Officers can draw on directions from other officers to generate reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop a suspect. When a peace officer acts on information received from another, the acting officer must objectively rely on that information. The officer who gave the information must have facts supporting the level of suspicion required, and the stop shouldn’t be any more intrusive than what would have been permissible for the officer who ordered it.
Visit the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit website to read the entire opinion.