A Series Of Coincidences And Officer Credibility: A Look At How Too Many Coincidences Can Lead To An Unfavorable Result For The State

I imagine that most judges have seen it all when it comes to individuals testifying, begging for forgiveness, using inappropriate words, and even the occasional fake fainting spell.  In my own personal experience, I get a good laugh every now and again while waiting for my case to be called from defendants just saying the wrong things to a judge and basically working against themselves for any favorable solution.  Never ends well for these individuals.  The main reason, of course, is because this individual lost credibility with the court.  Losing one’s credibility with a court can happen to anyone, including prosecutors, defense attorneys, and even police officers.  Once credibility is lost in the courtroom, it is damn near impossible to get it back!  And that is exactly what happened with the officer in State v. Poorman, 2016-Ohio-7110.

In Poorman, Sgt. Courtney stopped a vehicle for having a headlight out.  Upon approaching the vehicle, Courtney discovered that the headlight was working.  The headlight in question was pointing up towards the sky.

Unfortunately for the driver, he looked familiar to Courtney.  However, Courtney testified that he was not “100 percent sure who it was.”  And because that is good enough for police work, Courtney asked the driver for his license.  The driver in turn stated that he did not have a driver’s license, and just like that Courtney realized who the driver was based on his sleuth skills.  According to Courtney, this driver was “known to the Wauseon Police Department as never having a valid driver’s license.”

With that, Courtney placed the driver in the backseat of his police cruiser.  When the backup officer, Officer Hunter, showed up on the scene, Courtney ordered Hunter to “get an identification” from Poorman.  After getting Poorman’s identification, Hunter called it into dispatch.  Dispatch informed Hunter that Poorman had a warrant for his arrest.  Hunter then placed Poorman under arrest and conducted a search incident to arrest.  That search yielded marijuana in Poorman’s pocket.

To make matters even better, a K-9 was called to the scene.  The K-9 alerted to the vehicle and heroin was found in a cigarette pack were Poorman was seated.  When asked why a K-9 was called to the scene, Courtney explained that “one of the indicators” for calling the K-9 unit was the driver’s record.  Courtney went on to explain that “the fact is that the driver is a known drug dealer in town.”  No other indicators were given by Courtney.

Poorman filed a motion to suppress evidence arguing, that Courtney was without probable cause to make the initial traffic stop.  To really drive his motion home, Poorman attached an affidavit from the driver.  The affidavit stated the following:

“Officer Courtney knows me since high school, he said he pulled me over for my headlights, but the headlights worked.  He pulled my niece over in that car before.  He already had a preconceived notion as to the presence of drugs.  I heard the female officer say, “I want to search that car anyway.”  I saw Officer Courtney touch the headlight.  I was not speeding and I pulled over into the parking lot to get formula and I was there to get the formula.”

In addition, Poorman questioned why there was no video footage of the stop, despite Courtney’s cruiser being equipped with a working dash camera.  Poorman asserted that police department records indicated that Courtney’s cruiser recorded the stops both immediately prior to and immediately after the stop in question.

With regards to the cruiser camera, Courtney first stated on direct examination the he realized that his in car camera was still recording from the previous stop, so he reached up and manually shut off the tape recorder to “stop the recording of that previous traffic stop.”

On cross-examination, Courtney “corrected” his previous testimony.  Specifically, Courtney testified that he “stopped the recording of the video, but did not shut the camera off.”  Courtney explained that the camera “was still burning the previous traffic stop to the DVD, and that’s why it did not turn on and capture the traffic stop.”  When asked by defense counsel if it was “physically impossible” to turn the camera back on, Courtney explained “I could have, but the thing is, is when I turned my lights on, my overhead lights, it automatically turns the camera on and that’s what I had anticipated that my camera of doing, but it didn’t do that because it was still burning the previous stop.”

Officer Hunter and the K-9 Officer also testified in the motion to suppress.  At the conclusion of Poorman’s motion, the court allowed the parties to file supplemental briefs.  Soon after, the trial court issued a judgment entry granting Poorman’s motion to suppress.  The state subsequently appealed.

After discussing some basic procedural and standard of review case law, the appellate court quotes a significant portion of the trial court’s entry.  For your reading pleasure, below is the quoted section that the appellate court relied on in their decision upholding Poorman’s motion to suppress.

This case presents the Court with a difficult scenario, due in large part to the significant number of coincidences that occurred here.  What would normally be a ten minute interlude, for a headlight problem morphed into a forty-five minute search and seizure foray of major proportions.  Apparently it was just a coincidence that Courtney was patrolling the driver’s neighborhood at 11:15 p.m. on February 20, 2015; merely a coincidence that a one lamp encounter would justify a turn around and high speed chase; merely a coincidence that the on-board camera was mysteriously shut off; merely a coincidence that the lamp was actually working; merely a coincidence that the driver just happened to be in the car that was stopped for a headlight violation; and merely a coincidence that Courtney just happened to know that the driver was driving on a suspended license.

The number of coincidences occurring here, one upon the other, has morphed into a pattern, and a suspicion of good motive.  One might even call it a fishing expedition, and I do.  Just as in the Rules of Evidence, where it is stipulated that inferences cannot be drawn upon other inferences, so too here, with the number of coincidence that have occurred leading up to the stop here, all being piled one upon the other, are too coincidental, such that the arrest cannot be supported.

In that context the Court must note that the Defendant has also raised a number of credibility issues here.  The fact that it was revealed, and then admitted on Cross-Examination, by Courtney, that he did have some past but significant credibility issues of his own, does not help the state’s case here.  For that reason alone the Court will have to take some of Courtney’s salient testimony with a grain of salt.

With that, the appellate court held “the trial court found Courtney’s testimony not credible as to many events leading up to and including the traffic stop.  We further find there was sufficient competent credible evidence before the trial court to justify a finding that Courtney was without reasonable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop.”

I can tell you right now, if Courtney had credibility with the court, this traffic stop would probably have gone a different way.  In addition, there is not a doubt in my mind that trial counsel knew of Courtney’s credibility issues and attacked them full force.  Just goes to show you what a defense attorney can do when he/she researches all aspects of a case, to include the officer’s background!




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