First Circuit upholds decision in favor of Rhode Island state trooper

By Linda Bentley | February 24, 2010

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BOSTON, Mass. – On Feb. 4, the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a U.S. District Court decision in favor of Rhode Island State Trooper C. Thomas Chabot and against a group of illegal aliens that challenged his actions during a traffic stop in which he inquired into their immigration status, contacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and transported them to ICE, in what they claimed was a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights.
The ACLU filed the action on behalf of the illegal aliens.

The events leading to this action transpired in the early morning of July 11, 2006 when Carlos Tamup was driving a 15-passenger van heading south on Interstate 95 in Rhode Island. The 11 other plaintiffs were passengers in the van on their way to work in Westerly, R.I.

Chabot pulled Tamup over when he failed to activate his turn signal while switching lanes.
Tamup produced his driver’s license, vehicle registration, proof of insurance, and upon further questioning by Chabot, stated the van was owned by his wife and that he and the other passengers were on their way to work polishing silver in Westerly.

Chabot opened the front passenger door, counted the number of people inside and, using Tamup as a translator, asked the passengers to produce identification.

Court records indicate some of the passengers were able to produce various forms of identification, including a gym membership, a non-driver identification issued by the Rhode Island Division of Motor vehicles and two identifications issued by the Guatemalan Consulate.

Chabot then asked the passengers if they could produce documentation establishing their U.S. citizenship. None were able to do so.

Although Chabot stated during his deposition he did not observe any unusual or suspicious activity at the time, he also testified that he normally requested identification from passengers in vehicles he stopped, and more than 99 percent of those he requests identification can supply it.

Chabot then asked Tamup to step out of the vehicle so he could perform a pat-down search, which yielded nothing.

When Chabot asked Tamup for his social security number and green card, Tamup stated he only had his driver’s license and the passengers didn’t have any other documentation.

According to the opinion written by Third Circuit Judge Juan R. Torruella, many or most of the passengers apparently admitted to Chabot they were in the country illegally.

After running a check on Tamup’s license, which came up as valid, and a criminal background check, which was negative, Chabot contacted ICE to report he had pulled over a van transporting individuals whom he believed were illegal immigrants.

Chabot had to wait approximately three minutes to receive a return call from the ICE office in Providence with instructions, which included Tamup being instructed to drive the van and its passengers to the ICE Providence office.

State troopers escorted the van en route and all of the van’s passengers were taken into custody upon arrival.

In January 2007, the passengers filed a complaint in Rhode Island District Court alleging an illegal search and seizure in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983; the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments; Article I, § 6 of the Rhode Island Constitution; unlawful discrimination under the Rhode Island Racial Profiling Prevention Act of 2004; and a state tort claim of negligence.

Motions were filed for summary judgment and on Dec. 30, 2008, the district court ruled in favor of the defendants, which also included the state of Rhode Island, State Police Department, Superintendent of Rhode Island State Police Steven Pare.

The First Circuit panel found Chabot’s actions fell under the doctrine of qualified immunity and stated, “Probable cause exists when the circumstances, ‘viewed from the vantage point of a prudent, reasonable, cautious police officer … guided by … experience and training’ are sufficient to warrant a reasonable person to believe that the individual had committed or was committing a crime.

Citing United States v. Ortiz, the court stated, “The Supreme Court has made it clear that officers can ‘draw reasonable inferences from the facts in light of their knowledge of the area and their prior experience …’”

The court also noted by the time Chabot demanded the plaintiffs follow him to the ICE office, two plaintiffs had essentially admitted on their behalf and on the behalf of the rest of the passengers, they were in the country illegally.

Torruella wrote, “The likely consequesnce of discovery of unauthorized entry or unauthorized stay in this country – forced deportation – is a serious matter with serious consequences,” and found it reasonable for Chabot to conclude he was entitled to pat down Tamup to assert control over the situation and for his safety.

The second pat down occurred after Chabot conferred with ICE and received confirmation his suspicions were likely correct.

Chief Judge Sandra L. Lynch wrote a brief concurring opinion in which she stated, “In my view, the specific facts of this case also require the conclusion that the officer is entitled to immunity on all claims related to the escorting of the vehicle and its passengers to the immigration authorities. Officer Chabot had more information at his disposal than merely the Hispanic appearance of the passengers and their inability to speak English.

She said the information raised the real prospect that there were violations of criminal law by the driver, possibly by the employer and by the van’s driver.

Because the passengers could not produce identity documents, she stated a reasonable officer had grounds to believe they were violating the requirement to carry their registration or lacked registration because they had entered illegally.

“Either situation was a violation of the law,” wrote Lynch, who concluded, “Plaintiff’s claims were properly dismissed.”