When does an officer overstep his bounds?

By: Dee Wampler

An officer with the Kansas City Police Department observed a vehicle enter an intersection and act suspiciously. The license plate was called in and the vehicle was stolen. He followed the vehicle but lost sight of it, proceeded to drive up and down nearby streets looking for the vehicle.

He noticed a man walking down the sidewalk of one of the side streets and discovered the stolen Pontiac parked on the side of the street and located the defendant about fifty feet away from the vehicle.

The officer parked, approached the suspect, and questioned him. He appeared nervous and could not provide the officer with an address. The suspect was frisked for a weapon with none found, felt a vehicle key fob in the suspect’s pants pocket. He removed the key fob noticing that it had a Pontiac emblem and used it to unlock the stolen Pontiac from where he later saw a handgun on the floor. Craddock was a convicted felon and he was arrested and charged with possession of a handgun. His DNA was later matched on the vehicle steering wheel.¹

The court reversed the conviction saying Craddock’s proximity to the stolen vehicle may certainly have provided the officer with reasonable suspicion to frisk for weapons² as a suspected car thief might reasonably possess a weapon. The officer may have probable cause to believe that the item in “plain touch” was incriminating but the incriminating character of the object must be immediately identifiable. Craddock’s nervousness and proximity to the vehicle alone didn’t give the officer probable cause to believe the unidentified key fob was linked to the stolen Pontiac.

The incriminating character was not immediately apparent under the plain feel doctrine and although the officer might have had a good hunch, it was less than probably cause.

The inevitable discovery doctrine does provide an exception to the exclusionary rule where the officer can establish that the information ultimately or inevitably would have been discovered by lawful means.³ In this case, the officer’s seizure of the key exceeded the appropriate scope of a Terry frisk and it was suppressed.

¹     U.S. v Craddock, (8th Cir. 2016).
²     Terry v Ohio, 392 US 1 (1968).
³     Nix v Williams, 467 US 43 (1984).

Dee Wampler – learn more

At the Law Offices of Dee Wampler & Joseph Passanise, Dee Wampler draws from more than four decades of legal experience in defending clients accused of an array of crimes throughout southwestern Missouri, including Springfield, St. Louis and Kansas City. As a Springfield native, Mr. Wampler understands the nuances of the Missouri court system, but he is an equally formidable criminal trial attorney in high-profile federal cases involving serious charges. His work has earned him recognition across the country and even internationally. Several nationally syndicated television shows, including “Saturday Night with Connie Chung,” “Inside Edition” and ABC’s “Primetime” have featured his cases, and Missouri Lawyers Weekly has showcased his work approximately 20 times.