A D.C. court's poor judgment

Thursday, June 10, 2010

"YO, OFFICER ELLIOTT, you know me. I ain't got no drugs or guns. . . . Go ahead and search me."

It was nearly midnight just a few days before Christmas 2005 when Officer Robert Elliott of the Metropolitan Police Department drove his patrol car through Sursum Corda, a public housing complex near Union Station notorious for drug and gang violence. A 16-year-old identified in court records as T.L. was in a group of young men standing on a corner; T.L. called out to the officer by name. The teenager invited Officer Elliott to search him after the officer asked whether he was carrying contraband.

A quick pat-down turned up $974 in cash. T.L. began shouting for his mother and claiming that he had earned the cash at McDonald's when Officer Elliott seized the money and said he was going to impound it. The officer, unable to complete the search, repeatedly directed T.L. to stop shouting because it was "late at night and people were trying to sleep."

Some 10 to 15 people emerged from nearby homes and congregated around T.L. The officer later testified that he considered it "very dangerous" to attract a crowd, "especially in Sursum Corda" because "suspects sometimes incite crowds to divert and overwhelm the police in order to escape." Officer Elliott arrested T.L. for disorderly conduct. A more thorough search of T.L. at the police station uncovered 24 bags of crack cocaine hidden in his coat and pants pockets.

A minor camped out at a corner in the middle of a winter night in a high-crime area. An invitation to search. Wads of cash and a stash of illegal drugs. Who does the court side with?

"We cannot fault a sixteen-year-old in these circumstances for loudly objecting and calling for his mother to come and stand up for his rights before the police departed with his money," a unanimous panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals wrote. The judges concluded that the officer was wrong to arrest T.L. for disorderly conduct, that the youngster "did not incite the onlookers to violence or threaten to become violent himself" and that the drugs seized on T.L.'s person should be thrown out as evidence because they were the fruit of an illegal search.

This is an unfortunate, probably naive and quite possibly damaging decision. T.L. may have yelled out for his mother to protect his rights. But isn't Officer Elliott's hypothesis just as plausible? After all, T.L.'s actions put an end to the search at the scene.

Law enforcement officers must be held to high standards, but judges should allow some leeway for dealing appropriately with the realities and the dangers of the streets. Officer Elliott used his best judgment and made a reasonable call in a potentially volatile situation. A cache of illegal drugs was seized. No one was hurt. Such actions should be commended, not penalized.

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