TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – An appeals court has overturned a first-degree murder conviction in the death of a Pompano Beach store owner, finding that police didn’t have “reasonable suspicion” to pull over a car containing three black men.
In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal said the traffic stop violated the constitutional rights of defendant Lorenzo Sanchez, who argued that the stop stemmed from “driving while black.”
The stop came after the July 30, 2008, shooting of the owner of Amigo Food Store during a robbery. Alerts to police officers described two Haitian men running away from the store. A short time later, a police officer saw a Dodge Charger traveling a few blocks from the crime scene, with the driver’s hair in dreadlocks and a backseat passenger wearing a strange-looking hat.
The ruling does not provide details about what happened immediately after the car was pulled over, but Sanchez was later convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
A majority of the appeals court, however, said police did not have adequate reason to stop the car.
“In fact, as the evidence disclosed, the police were stopping every black male in the vicinity of this tragic crime,” said the ruling written by Judge Robert Gross. “To uphold the stop, in this case, would be to allow overly generic stops in the area of a crime — i.e., all black males, all Hispanic women — a practice reminiscent of Captain Renault’s instruction in the film Casablanca to ‘Round up the usual suspects.’ The (U.S. Constitution’s) Fourth Amendment does not permit stops based on such minimal information.”
But Judge Burton Conner dissented, pointing to issues such as the length of time between the robbery and the stop, the location and observations by a police officer about the suspicious appearance of Sanchez, who was the backseat passenger.
“Like the majority, I am deeply disturbed by the record evidence showing that other officers were apparently stopping people just because of their race and gender,” Conner wrote. “Such law enforcement behavior cannot be condoned in a free society. But as the case law makes clear, the subjective motivations of law enforcement do not make evidence inadmissible under the Fourth Amendment.”
The majority said the case should go back to circuit court.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.