HELENA — It was legal for a Montana Highway Patrol trooper to lie about the reason for a traffic stop during a 2012 drug sting, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday, rejecting arguments from a convict sent to prison for a decade.
A three-member panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower-court decision allowing 2 pounds of methamphetamine found in Hector Magallon-Lopez’s car to be used as evidence against him. He was convicted on federal drug charges.
The judges referred to a 2005 ruling saying a stop is justified if the officer knows there is reasonable suspicion to make it, even if he falsely cites the reason.
Authorities investigating an interstate drug-trafficking ring learned through wiretaps that a shipment of meth would be traveling by car from the Yakima Valley in Washington state to Minnesota.
Officers had information about the car and knew that two Hispanic men would be inside. They also had the name of one man and a time frame for when the pair would be traveling through southwestern Montana.
When police spotted the car on Sept. 28, 2012, an officer followed it. A check of the plates determined the car was registered to Magallon-Lopez, who lived in the Yakima Valley area.
A trooper stopped the car, telling Magallon-Lopez that he had failed to signal when making a lane change.
Officers questioned the men, confirmed their names and learned they were traveling from the Yakima Valley to Minnesota.
A dog sniffed out drugs in the car, which was seized until authorities got a search warrant and found the meth.
The judges said the officers had probable cause to seize Magallon-Lopez’s car, based on the “reliability of the information gleaned from the wiretap intercepts.”
But one judge expressed concern about earlier rulings that seem to lead to the “distressing conclusion” that it’s “fine for police officers flatly to tell the drivers they stop that they observed … a traffic violation when they really did not.”
Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon noted that lying to government officials can lead to lengthy prison terms.
“One would expect that lying by police officers to citizens would have consequences as well,” Berzon wrote in her concurring opinion.
She noted that several states have passed laws requiring officers to tell suspects why they are being arrested, and in some cases, the officers are held responsible for misstatements.
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