Connecticut Supreme Court Says State Cops Can Detain You Simply For Being In The Vicinity Of Someone They're Arresting

by Tim Cushing
Aug. 05, 2014

Gideon, the pseudonymous public defender who blogs at A Public Defender, has a thorough rundown of a very disturbing ruling recently issued by the Connecticut Supreme Court. It involves every Connecticut citizens' civil liberties, which have now been thrown under a bus bearing the name "officer safety."

The court's decision basically makes everyone a suspect, even if they're suspected of nothing else than being in the relative proximity of someone a police officer suspects of committing a crime, or someone simply "matching the description." How does this work in practice? Gideon posits a single scenario, as interpreted by the person being (wrongly) detained and those doing the actual detaining.
First, imagine you are walking down a public street with your friend. You’re both on your way to the local grocery store to buy some hummus. The police pull up, take a look at you friend and mistakenly believe that he’s a notorious wanted criminal. They order him to stop. You, not wanting to be caught up in this police business, keep walking, but they order you to stop, even though they don’t know you, don’t suspect you and you haven’t done anything wrong. You have rights, dammit and you know the Fourth Amendment. Can they stop you and force you to give up your freedom?

The second is this: what I’ve just described above is a version of the events that transpired. They’re “facts” in a sense that they’re your recitation of the events. But that’s obviously not good enough, right? There is another version – that of the police officers. So who gets to decide which is the “truth”? Which is believable and accurate and should be relied upon? Because – and this is critical – the law is entirely fact-dependent. How the law applies depends on the nuances of the factual scenarios. And that is left entirely up to the trial judge: the judge that hears the evidence from you and the police officers and then decides what “actually” happened. That’s called fact-finding and will only be overturned if “clearly erroneous”. Meaning almost never. There is a deified deference paid to the trial court’s “findings of fact”.
As always, this situation becomes your word against theirs. But the court has now placed even more confidence in "theirs." Your version is that you just happened to be in the vicinity of someone the police are expressing interest in. Their version is that anyone within eyesight is probably either a) an accomplice or b) a threat. And it gets even worse. The police can be completely in the wrong and still be covered by this ruling.
One of the bulwarks of the Fourth Amendment protection is that the police need something called particularized suspicion, meaning that they need to have some evidence to believe that you have committed a crime in order to stop you.

This opinion does away with that. In fact, the police don’t even have to be correct about the person in your vicinity they are seeking to stop.
So, police can be targeting the wrong person and sweep up anyone who happens to be in the vicinity and still be immune from the consequences. In essence, the court gives police the ability, if not the actual right, to detain anyone at anytime for no reason at all. How did the court manage to arrive at this bizarre rights-trampling ruling? Well, it had to do a whole lot of re-imagining of the actual events using the most paranoiac of police officers' mindsets. As Gideon points out, he's never seen the court engage in such a thorough retroactive fact-finding mission -- one that involved massaging the facts until they conformed with the court's preferred outcome.

From the majority opinion:
The defendant next claims that the Appellate Court incorrectly concluded that the trial court properly had found that Detective Rivera and Lieutenant Angeles were justified in detaining the defendant because they had a reasonable concern for their safety. In support of this claim, the defendant asserts that the trial court’s conclusion was based on clearly erroneous factual findings and, further, that the Appellate Court ignored those erroneous findings and improperly upheld the trial court’s ruling on the basis of facts that the trial court never found.
Explained in plain English by Gideon, who has been following this case as it has progressed through the system:
In support of the finding of officer safety, the trial judge found that the guy the police were looking for (who, of course, was neither of the guys stopped) had a felony warrant for possession of a firearm, and that’s it.

The Appellate Court found that the stop was justified because of the felony warrant for a firearm and credible evidence that the guy they were looking for was armed and dangerous, a fact omitted by the trial court.

The Supreme Court had to agree that the “felony possession of a firearm” factual finding was clearly erroneous because no witness testified as to those words. It was, in fact, a warrant for a violation of probation.
It doesn't add up, but the court fudged the math. Officer safety trumps rights because credible threats are credible even when they're not threats (a probation violation rather than an "armed and dangerous" suspect) and even when they're not credible (no witnesses stating anything to the effect of "armed and dangerous").

The dissenting opinion shows just how dangerous this ruling is.
I agree with the majority that the police have a legitimate interest in protecting themselves. There must be, however, some restrictions placed on the intent. In my view, there are several potential unconscionable ramifications to the majority opinion. For instance, if a suspect with an outstanding warrant is talking to his neighbor’s family near the property line, can the police now detain the entire family as part of the encounter with the suspect? If the suspect is waiting at a bus stop with six other strangers, can they all be detained? If the same suspect is observed leaving a house and stopped in the front yard, can the police now seize everyone in the house to ensure that no one will shoot them while they question the suspect? What if the suspect is detained in a neighborhood known to have a high incident of crime, can the police now seize everyone in the entire neighborhood to ensure their safety while they detain the suspect? There simply is no definition of who is a ‘‘companion’’ in the majority opinion. I would require more than mere ‘‘guilt by association.’’ Ever mindful of Franklin’s admonition, we cannot use the omnipresent specter of safety as a guise to authorize government intrusion.
This is a law enforcement blank check. This allows police to use spurious reasons to detain people they just don't want around -- like eyewitnesses and photographers. This allows police to perform en masse detentions and gives them the opportunity to root around from something more than weak obstruction/interference charges. This eliminates the public's right to live their lives unmolested by law enforcement officers. This makes simply existing "guilt by association." If a criminal is arrested in your yard, you and everyone in your house and every rubbernecker on the street can be detained by officers in order to ensure their safety.

Just as troubling is the amount of creative thinking the court had to engage in to reach this horrific decision. Facts are no longer facts. Facts are just something to be considered or discarded at the court's whim.
It is certainly very curious that the Supreme Court would take the extraordinary step of clarifying “factual findings” by the trial court in an effort to support the conviction, when the clear record below – the words said by the judge in open court – would support a reversal…

Where does it stop? Are facts only facts as long as they’re convenient? Are rights only rights as long as they don’t get in the way of governmental authority?
The Connecticut Supreme Court has delivered its public into the hands of a police state. Anyone, anywhere can be detained for absolutely no reason at all, and when they complain or file lawsuits, this ruling will allow officer safety to override all other concerns. If any facts are actually considered, they'll be filtered through law enforcement sensibilities.

Ruling (PDF)

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