An appellate court case out of Florida came pretty damn close to getting it right last week. It read like a home run for the defendant and for citizens everywhere, but by the time all was said and done, it was merely a long fly ball.
Ruiz v. State involved the issue of an alleged illegal search and seizure. Two police officers testified that Ruiz gave consent to search his apartment. Ruiz testified that he didn’t. Typical hearing; two different stories. It’s up to the judge to determine who to believe and we know how that goes. The problem with Ruiz is that the police officers’ story doesn’t make any sense. On paper, it simply is not believable.
Right away you know the opinion is going to be a good one. The first sentence tells us we are in for a ride:
This case is a paradigm for a type of case that is common in our courts, where “consent” to a search is found under objectively questionable circumstances.
Here is the short version of the officers’ testimony.
They “nonchalantly” approached Ruiz on the street and “calmly” asked his name. He told them his name was Freddie and that his identification was upstairs in his apartment. He offered to take them up there if they wanted to see it. They wanted to see it. Ruiz led them up to his apartment and “motioned” the officers to come inside. The police officers saw a scale and some cocaine residue in plain view. They arrested Ruiz and he told them about some cocaine hidden in a shaving cream can and some “weed” hidden in his dresser drawer.
Does that sound believable?
The defendant’s story was a little different.
Ruiz was on his way back from the store when three officers stopped their vehicle in front of him, jumped out with their guns drawn, and told him not to move. Ruiz did not think he was free to leave. One officer frisked him and asked for his identification. Ruiz said he did not have any identification and the police said they would arrest him if he could not produce some identification. Ruiz said that his identification was in his apartment. The officers escorted him to his apartment. After he opened the door, the officers went inside and searched through everything. Ruiz did not give the officers permission to enter his residence.
This case is a great illustration of what is typically wrong with suppression hearings.
Cases like this one call into question the fairness of some trial court proceedings. On the pages of the record, the story told by the police is unbelievable—an anonymous informant gives incriminating information; police surveillance uncovers no criminal conduct; the defendant is “nonchalantly” and “casually” approached by the police on the street; the defendant cooperatively leads the police back to his apartment to obtain his identification and invites the police inside, where a detective sees contraband in plain view, a fact certainly known to the defendant when he issued the invitation; after his arrest, the defendant tells the police about all the hidden drugs in the apartment.
That’s pretty strong language: the story told by the police is unbelievable.
Unfortunately, the court affirmed the trial judge’s refusal to suppress the drugs: If believed, the detectives’ testimony supports the ruling.
Whoever wins at the trial level is almost always assured of victory at the appellate court. This is especially true if the issue is consent. The reason is that the appellate court is going to defer to the lower court for findings of fact. That makes sense because the trial judge gets to look at the witness and is therefore, in a better position to judge credibility.
I have yet to find a case where the appellate court reversed under this standard. If unbelievable is not enough, I’m not sure what it would take.