A Gutsy Judge At Election Time

Whenever a judge suppresses evidence on the basis that it was obtained by the police in violation of the Constitution, he runs the risk of public criticism. Suppress the evidence when the defendant is an elected official, and the judge creates the potential for a firestorm. Take the action at election time, and he risks losing his job.

Suppression hearings are commonplace. Anytime the police might have made a mistake that violate the Fourth Amendment, and that mistake led to evidence that a prosecutor wishes to use to obtain a conviction, the defense will file such a motion. The procedure is not complicated: the judge is asked to hear evidence and decide whether to throw out or "suppress" the evidence because of the constitutional violation. The issue is not whether the police were unscrupulous or intentionally violated the law when it discovered the evidence. Instead, the question is whether their conduct violated the Constitution as interpreted by the courts. Mistakes happen.

And such was the case this week in County Court at Law no. 1 in Tarrant County, Texas. Fort Worth Justice of the Peace Ernest Sidney Thompson had been arrested on charges of DWI after being stopped in Grand Prairie. The JP sought to suppress any evidence after he was stopped on the basis that the police did not have a legal reason to pull him over.

Judge Mike Mitchell agreed, the evidence was suppressed, and the case was dismissed by the State since the prosecution was left with no evidence to support its case.

The JP had been stopped, in part, due to "at least one motorist" who had called police alleging the vehicle was being driving erratically. When police located the JP's vehicle (which, by the way, bore license plates that read "JUDGE 8"), he was stopped for allegedly not "changing lanes safely".

The law is fairly clear. Police cannot stop a vehicle based upon an anonymous call unless there are at least some facts to corroborate what the caller said that gives rise to "a reasonable suspicion" that criminal conduct is afoot. Of course, the police can stop any vehicle if they see the driver commit a traffic violation. Based upon the testimony presented at the hearing, Judge Mitchell found that there was no evidence presented at the hearing that indicated the defendant was driving erratically or had violated any traffic laws. Consequently, the stop was ruled unlawful and the evidence was suppressed.

Judge Mitchell did not have to be reminded that this is, for him, election time.

As could be expected, the Fort Worth Star Telegram picked up the story and ran it in the Wednesday, December 10, 1997 edition. I'm sure Judge Mitchell is mindful of the potential public outcry: One judge cut another judge loose! Never mind the fact that Mitchell did what he was ethically and constitutionally required to do based upon the facts as he viewed them.

I can't stress enough how easy it would have been for Judge Mitchell to deny the Motion to Suppress. If he did so, the status of the case would simply remain unchanged. In the normal course of business, it would be set for trial or possibly plea bargained. Even if an agreement on the case could not be reached, a jury would be called upon to decide the JP's guilt as well as whether there were facts which justified the stop.

He could have simply shifted the responsibility to others and taken himself out of the loop. If he had done so, you would have never heard a word about the suppression hearing. But he didn't.

Let me admit that I know Judge Mitchell and was assigned to his court several years ago when I was with the Tarrant County D.A.s office. I like the man. He didn't always rule in may favor, but I always believed he ruled based upon his interpretation of the facts and the law - not based upon politics.

And just like he did many years ago, he is still doing it today. He believed that the facts in the JP case were such that the Constitution had been violated. Once he came to that conclusion, he made his ruling despite its consequences to public relations.

He may have been wrong on his interpretation of the facts. I don't know. I wasn't there. However, my purposes is not to extol the correctness of his decision.

I do, however, have admiration for his desire to do what he believes is the right thing - regardless of politics.

Barry Green is the District Attorney for the 271st Judicial District.

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