used an unconstitutional traffic stop to initiate my October 2013 arrest, adding to the growing number of grounds by which my five-month incarceration was unlawful. Did the deputy have reason to know he was acting outside the law? Well, he violated a U.S. Supreme Court decision that has been in place for 30 years.
I was the only journalist in the western hemisphere to be incarcerated in 2013, drawing national and international news coverage that focused largely on violations of free-speech rights under the First Amendment. But the actions of Shelby County deputy Chris Blevins trample the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures--and Blevins' acts should be disturbing to every American who drives, or rides in, a vehicle. To make matters even more disturbing, Blevins was not the first Alabama law-enforcement to conduct an unconstitutional traffic stop against my wife and me during roughly a three-week period in fall 2013.
I raised the traffic-stop issue at my resisting-arrest trial in January 2014, trying to show that I could not resist an arrest that was unlawful, on multiple grounds, in the first place. But District Judge Ron Jackson claimed Blevins was making a "pick-up stop," based on a warrant for my arrest, and therefore was not subject to Fourth Amendment provisions. Jackson, as seems customary for Shelby County judges, cited no law to support this notion--and my research indicates there is nothing in the law to support it.
Do citizens pay a price for that kind of judicial arrogance and incompetence? The answer is yes, both literally and figuratively. Jackson found me guilty of resisting arrest and imposed an $845 fine. My picture was on the Shelby County "Most Wanted" list for months, long after the fine had been paid in April.
Where does one go to have his reputation restored when it has been trampled by rogue officers, prosecutors, and judges. We've already shown that Circuit Judge Claud Neilson issued a preliminary injunction in a defamation case against me (brought by Republican political figures Rob Riley and Liberty Duke), violating roughly 230 years of First Amendment law. We've shown that prosecutor Tonya Willingham brought a resisting-arrest charge against me even though Jackson ordered her to produce any warrants for my arrest, and she responded, "Your Honor, we have no warrants."
As it stands now, the public record indicates Blevins entered the garage underneath our house, knocked me to a concrete floor three times, maced me in the face, dragged me to the driveway, handcuffed me and tossed me in the back of a police cruiser--all without having a warrant. (This apparently violates a U.S. Supreme Court precedent styled Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 1979; more on that case coming in future posts.) The record also indicates officers were trying to arrest my wife, but apparently were unwilling to knock down our front door to get at her in an upstairs bedroom.
This is unlawful enough to boggle the mind, but the problems really started when Blevins honked his horn in the driveway and forced me to stop our car.
How do we know that Blevins acted in an unconstitutional matter? Well, it isn't easy to make such a determination because traffic-stop law is murky; it's mostly enforced at the state level, but it is grounded in federal law--especially the Fourth Amendment, under which a traffic stop is considered a "seizure."
In general, an officer can stop a vehicle under two circumstances: (1) He witnesses a violation of traffic laws, which can include moving violations or issues related to a vehicle's condition; (2) He has reasonable suspicion to believe an occupant in the vehicle is involved in criminal activity.
We've already established that Blevins' actions constitute a traffic stop under the law. He drove his police cruiser down our driveway as I was coming home and trying to pull our car into the garage. He activated his horn/siren and emergency lights to get my attention, forcing me to stop. Blevins' own words from his incident report (see report at the end of this post) show that he was conducting a traffic stop:
I observed Mr. Shuler traveling toward his home at 5204 Logan Drive. Mr. Shuler pulled into his driveway, and I drove in behind him. I used my vehicle's air horn to get Mr. Shuler's attention, and he stopped his vehicle in front of his garage.
Blevins' own words describe a "show of force" that caused me to stop and be detained--meaning this was a traffic stop, as described in "The Law of Traffic Stops (Keyed to Alabama Law)," by Montgomery attorney Patrick Mahaney.
Did Blevins have lawful grounds to stop my vehicle? For guidance, we first turn to a case styled Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996), which holds:
An automobile stop is thus subject to the constitutional imperative that it not be "unreasonable" under the circumstances. As a general matter, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.
Could Blevins stop my car because he had probable cause to believe I had committed a traffic violation? The answer is no. Blevins' never stated to me that I had violated any traffic law and never made any mention of writing a ticket or warning. His own words in the incident report make no mention of an alleged traffic violation.
Since Blevins fails under the Whren test, we must turn to his second option--a case styled United States v. Hensley, 469 U.S. 221 (1985), which is 30 years old and holds:
Where police have been unable to locate a person suspected of involvement in a past crime, the ability to briefly stop that person, ask questions, or check identification in the absence of probable cause promotes the strong government interest in solving crimes and bringing offenders to justice. Restraining police action until after probable cause is obtained would not only hinder the investigation but might also enable the suspect to flee and remain at large. The law enforcement interests at stake in these circumstances outweigh the individual's interest to be free of a stop and detention that is no more extensive than permissible in the investigation of imminent or ongoing crimes. When police have a reasonable suspicion, grounded in specific and articulable facts, that a person they encounter was involved in or is wanted in connection with a completed felony, then a Terry stop may be made to investigate that suspicion.
Hensley grew from an armed robbery in the Cincinnati area, where police issued a "wanted flyer" for the driver of the getaway car. Based on the wanted flyer, police eventually stopped a vehicle, and the U.S. Supreme Court found the stop lawful because officers had "reasonable suspicion" that the person was "wanted in connection with a completed felony."
Was I wanted in connection with a completed felony? Heck, I wasn't even wanted in connection to a crime. I was wanted because of a contempt of court order based on an unlawful preliminary injunction in a defamation lawsuit.
As noted above, traffic-stop law can be tricky. For example, four federal circuits have extended Hensley to apply to cases of suspected misdemeanors. But I wasn't suspected of a misdemeanor, not even jaywalking.
Every state-law case that I've seen acknowledges that traffic-stop law, by definition, is grounded in the U.S. constitution--specifically, the Fourth Amendment. And I've yet to see a case that cites federal law to say it's OK to conduct a traffic stop on an individual who allegedly has an arrest warrant in a civil case that involves no allegations of criminal activity.
The word "allegedly" is important here because, the public record at the moment, indicates Blevins entered our home without an arrest warrant--and I've neither seen nor heard anything from him or prosecutor Willingham to show that a warrant existed at all.
What can we take from this? Perhaps its best to turn to an article titled "Alabama Journalist Jailed for Contempt Under Political Stench," which was published on January 15, 2014, at photographyisnotacrime,com (PINAC), a Web site that Miami multimedia journalist Carlos Miller started in 1997. PINAC opposes efforts to limit the public's ability to chronicle police activities.
Reporter Andrew Meyer notes that my case raises troubling issues about the First Amendment (right to a free press), Fourth Amendment (right to be free from unreasonable search/seizure), Fifth Amendment (right not to be deprived of liberty without due process of law), Sixth Amendment (right to a trial by jury), and Fourteenth Amendment (right to due process and equal protection).
Concludes PINAC's Meyer:
Shuler’s story might set the record for amount of constitutional rights casually broken in one case.
Perhaps more than any other journalist I'm aware of, Meyer understands that my case goes way beyond the First Amendment violations--as important as those are. These are violations that should trouble every American, even those who have no interest in ever practicing journalism or writing a blog.
Have you ever driven, or ridden in, a vehicle? If so, these issues should matter to you.