Judge rules La. officer's search illegal

By Penny Brown, Advocate staff writer
The Advocate
Copyright 2006 Capital City Press
All Rights Reserved

A Baton Rouge police officer illegally seized a firearm from a convicted armed robber during a traffic stop, so now the gun can't be used as evidence, a federal judge decided.

In a 12-page ruling late last week, U.S. District Judge James Brady tossed out the .380-caliber handgun Officer Christopher Fisher found a year ago in Ronald Thibodeaux's PT Cruiser during a traffic stop.

Thibodeaux was convicted of five counts of armed robbery in 1992 and was on probation until 2011. He legally was barred from carrying a gun at the time of the stop.

In his ruling, Brady concluded that Fisher lacked grounds to search the car because he had no reasonable suspicion Thibodeaux had committed or was about to commit a crime.

That's the legal standard for extending a traffic stop beyond the driving infraction itself.

Thibodeaux was headed east on Interstate 10 just before 6 a.m. in October 2005 when he suddenly slid into Fisher's lane without signaling. The officer pulled Thibodeaux over to make sure he was OK and give him a warning.

At a July hearing, Fisher testified that he searched Thibodeaux's car because the driver didn't immediately stop and acted "jittery" and backed away when the officer tried to speak with him.

Thibodeaux also became emotional and sat on the ground when Fisher told him he wasn't under arrest but asked him to sit in the back of the police car.

After convincing Thibodeaux to get in, Fisher looked inside the PT Cruiser and found the handgun wedged between the driver's seat cushion and the seatbelt. It wasn't until later that the officer checked Thibodeaux's criminal history and discovered his felony conviction.

Thibodeaux's lawyer, Joseph Lotwick, argues that while "the traffic stop was justified, the "investigative detention was not."

But federal prosecutor Michael Jefferson contends that Fisher searched the vehicle out of concern for officer safety and found the gun in plain view.

"When the officer spotted the firearm, he clearly was in a place where he had a right to be; he was doing what he had a right to do; and, he was standing where he had a right to stand," states Jefferson's memorandum to Brady. "The officer not only had a right to proceed as he did, but also a duty."

In his ruling, Brady agrees officer safety is "a valid concern. However, the credibility of this argument is greatly weakened since Fisher failed to give any testimony which indicated he felt endangered."

The judge notes that Fisher testified Thibodeaux "was not showing any active aggression," and that the officer didn't search Thibodeaux for weapons before putting him inside the police car.

Brady said the search might have been justified for safety reasons had Fisher first checked Thibodeaux's license and criminal history and discovered the previous conviction.

"Just because an individual seems nervous or anxious to return to their vehicle does not mean the officer's safety is in danger," Brady writes. "If Fisher's true concern was officer safety, he should have patted down Thibodeaux or called for back-up prior to detaining him in the back of the police car. However, the record shows that Fisher's true concern was finding out what Thibodeaux was hiding."

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