ALEXANDRIA, La.—The dashcam footage is clear as day. A red Ford Mustang is sitting at a red light with its left turn signal blinking. The red light turns green, and the car turns left. Two Alexandria police officers immediately pull the car over. Mario Rosales and his girlfriend Gracie Lasyone are told they were pulled over for failing to signal, yet for the next 20 minutes the officers separately interrogate them about drugs, probing for crimes that they have no cause to investigate.
The Constitution protects Americans from being detained and investigated for no good reason. While Mario and Gracie left with citations that were later dropped by the government, they also experienced multiple violations of their basic civil rights. Today, the two launched a federal lawsuit with the Institute for Justice (IJ) against the two officers and the city of Alexandria, because the Fourth Amendment prohibits police from stopping people to find crimes.
Watch complete video of the stop HERE.
“The Fourth Amendment promises that police will not detain us on a whim to search for crimes,” said IJ Attorney Marie Miller. “They have to reasonably suspect a person of a crime to stop and interrogate them about it. The Constitution is the highest law in the land and officers can’t violate it in pursuit of a crime.”
Mario was in the process of trying to move from New Mexico to Louisiana. In his spare time, he fixes up old cars, including Mustangs and Chevy Impalas. Mario and Gracie were on their way to purchase an auto part when they were stopped on June 15.
Mario was confused about why the police had pulled him over but followed directions to exit his car. The officers frisked Mario and searched his pockets even though he had not given the officers any reason to suspect him of being armed or dangerous or of any wrongdoing. Both he and Gracie were asked probing questions about their relationship and about whether they did a number of drugs.
Officers also barred Mario and Gracie from recording the traffic stop on their phones, a violation of their First Amendment rights. When Gracie asked the officers why they were questioning them about drugs, she was told the officers were “just curious.” The officers also said that they were pulling people over for infractions and then “just talking” with them.
The bodycam footage makes clear that the officers did not simply want to hand out traffic citations; they were fishing for bigger crimes. When dispatch informed the officers that a search for criminal histories or open warrants had returned no results, one officer exclaimed in disappointment, “Aw, what are the chances of that?! … Aw man!” The officers issued Mario a citation for failing to signal and not switching his license plates to Louisiana.
After the incident, Mario asked businesses around the intersection if they had video footage. One did and the recording showed that Mario had used his turn signal. After the body and dashcam footage was requested and provided, it further proved that Mario had used his blinker. The government dismissed Mario’s traffic tickets entirely.
“I did nothing wrong, but I still found myself standing on the side of the road wondering whether I would be arrested,” said Mario. “What happened to me was wrong and I’m trying to hold the police and the city accountable because they are certainly treating other people the same way. Police have an important job to do, but they have to follow the Constitution.”
The traffic stop violated Mario and Gracie’s Fourth and First Amendment rights. To start, the police officers cannot pull drivers over without a reason to believe they violated a traffic rule or some other law. Officers also expanded the initial stop beyond an investigation into a traffic infraction and searched Mario without a warrant and without a reason to believe that he was armed and dangerous. The officers also violated Mario’s and Gracie’s First Amendment rights by prohibiting them from recording the stop. Mario and Gracie’s lawsuit is also against the city of Alexandria because the officers were carrying out unconstitutional departmental policies.
“The Fourth Amendment guarantees each of us the right to go about our business without government workers stopping us unless they have a good reason,” said IJ Senior Attorney Patrick Jaicomo. “‘I’m just curious’ is not a reason the Constitution recognizes, but it’s a reason that sadly justifies a lot of searches and seizures today. It’s time to change that.”
The Institute for Justice is a national nonprofit law firm that defends property rights and the Fourth Amendment, and seeks to hold government officials accountable. IJ is currently leading a class action lawsuit against the town of Brookside, Alabama, which systematically increased traffic stops and citations to enrich the town government and police department. IJ also defends drivers who faced civil forfeiture after police seized their savings during traffic stops, including a veteran who had his savings taken by Nevada officers.