New Mexico- A federal appeals court has unanimously ruled that acne scars and driving with a stiff upright posture are reasonable grounds for being pulled over.
The ruling was made after Cindy Lee Westhoven filed a motion to suppress evidence of marijuana possession resulting from her encounter with Border Patrol Agent Joshua Semmerling. Westhoven challenged the arrest: “She argued the initial stop, her subsequent detention, and her de facto arrest all violated her Fourth Amendment rights,” the ruling stated. Westhoven had been pulled over by Semmerling in April 2012. Preceding the incident, Semmerling and Westhoven passed one another driving in opposite directions on Highway 80 in southern New Mexico.
Semmerling noticed that Westhoven’s arms were “straight and locked out” at a “ten-and-two position on the steering wheel” as she was driving by. Semmerling decided that this was unusual behavior, and made a U-turn to stop Westhoven “for an immigration check to determine the citizenship of the driver and any passengers.” Upon stopping Westhoven he observed that her vehicle, a Ford F-150, had tinted windows and Arizona license plates. Semmerling was convinced that this was suspicious.
Semmerling found Westhoven’s facial complexion suspicious as well; noting acne scars on her face, he believed that she might be a methamphetamine user. He began questioning Westhoven about where she was coming from and where she was heading. Westhoven was visibly anxious during the stop; Semmerling stated that he had “never seen somebody shaking like that before”.
Westhoven told Semmerling that she had been shopping in Douglas, Arizona and was heading to Tucson. Semmerling believed that her response was odd because “Tucson had better shopping opportunities than Douglas”, and driving on Highway 80 in New Mexico between Douglas and Tucson was an indirect route. During his questioning Semmerling saw that Westhoven had two cell phones in the truck, which he considered to be further evidence that she was smuggling illegal immigrants.
After Semmerling ran Westhoven’s Arizona driver’s license and found no warrants, he requested to search her truck, and she refused. He then called in a canine unit to check her vehicle, and marijuana was found inside the truck. Westhoven was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.
Westhoven argued that driving with a stiff posture was no justification for being pulled over. Having facial acne, two cell phones, and tinted windows were not in violation of any law. Judge Scott M. Matheson, Jr. of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit stated that none of these characteristics are suspicious on their own. “But when taken together along with driving a vehicle with out-of-state plates in a mountainous smuggling corridor 40-45 miles away from the border, we conclude Agent Semmerling had reasonable suspicion Ms. Westhoven was involved in smuggling activity.” The three judges of the Tenth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the search and threw out Westhoven’s motion to suppress the evidence of marijuana.
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