Having rosaries on your rearview mirror and DARE bumper stickers on your car is sufficient grounds for police to search your vehicle, a federal appeals court has ruled.
A three-judge panel of the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the items, which included pro-law enforcement bumper stickers, were sufficient grounds for a search of a vehicle that led to money laundering charges in a case called United States vs. Ruben Pena-Gonzalez.
The car was going only 2 mph over the speed limit.
“We do have concerns that classifying pro-law enforcement and anti-drug stickers or certain religious imagery as indicators of criminal activity risks putting drivers in a classic ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ position,” Circuit Judges Edith Jones, Jerry Edwin Smith and Gregg Costa acknowledged in their decision  on the case.
The man at the center of the stop, Ruben Pena-Gonzalez, was charged with money laundering — charges that stem from a traffic stop on US Highway 77 in Kingsville, Texas, on March 9, 2011. Kingsville is about a two-hour drive from the Mexican border.
The stop began when Kingsville Police Officer Mike Tamez pulled Pena-Gonzalez and his wife Nohemi Pena over after driving beside them on the highway. According to court documents, Tamez said several things made him suspicious:
- “The large number of bumper stickers supporting law enforcement,” which he said “shows a desire to be viewed as a ‘good guy.’”
- “Numerous air fresheners.”
- “Pancho Villa and St. Jude medallions on the key chain.”
- “Three rosaries hanging from the rearview mirror.”
All, he said, are commonly used by drug smugglers. The officer was going to issue the wife – who was driving – a warning, but he later said he noticed the husband appeared nervous. The husband agreed to let the officer search the car.
Tamez found 105 bundles of cash that contained more than $670,000 hidden behind a panel in the back. The cash was presumably drug money, Tamez said, and a grand jury indicted him on money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
The attorney for Peña-Gonzalez argued the car never should have been searched because there was not reasonable suspicion.
“Reasonable suspicion exists if the police officer can point to specific and articulable facts indicating that criminal activity is occurring or is about to occur,” the court ruled. “… And the suspicion need not relate to a particular crime; it is sufficient to have reasonable suspicion ‘that criminal activity may be afoot.’”
The court added, “We have long recognized that the presence of air fresheners, let alone four of them placed throughout an SUV, suggests a desire to mask the odor of contraband.”
The officer had “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity apart from the traffic violation” to continue the stop and search the Tahoe, the court ruled.
Do you believe that the officer had reasonable suspicion to search the car? In such cases, does the “end justify the means”? Share your thoughts in the section below: