Couple sue Alexandria Police over traffic stop, interrogation they claim was unwarranted

A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges Alexandria police officers violated a driver's constitutional rights by pulling him over for a traffic stop without reason then interrogating him without legal justification.

The Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm that specializes in civil liberties issues across the U.S., filed the suit against the city and police officers Jim Lewis and Samuel Terrell. It claims the officers violated the First and Fourth Amendment rights of Mario Rosales of Roswell, N.M., and his girlfriend, Gracie Lasyone of Dry Prong, who was a passenger in his car.

Also named as a defendant is Alexandria Police Chief Ronney Howard.

Jim Smilie, special projects coordinator with the city, said officials have not received a copy of the lawsuit so had no comment on the allegations.

"Neither Mario nor Gracie had demonstrated suspicious behavior," the lawsuit contends. "Neither were suspects of a crime. And neither has a criminal history. The officers interrogated Mario and Gracie about drug crimes thatthe officers had no reason believe had been committed; they frisked Mario without reason to believe he was armed and dangerous; they searched his pockets; and they flatly prohibited Mario and Gracie from recording the unlawful detention."

The traffic stop occurred June 15 as the couple traveled south on Jackson Street and were stopped at a red light to make a left turn onto Dorchester Drive. The officers later ticketed Rosales for failure to signal, though dashcam video from the police vehicle clearly shows he had used his left-turn signal before making the turn, the suit says. The institute provided a copy of the video and posted it to its website.

Rosales was in the process of moving to Louisiana from New Mexico, and his Ford Mustang had the latter state's license plate, the group says. He was also ticketed for failing to change it to a Louisiana plate.

The charges against Rosales were later dismissed, the suit says.

After Lasyone asked the officers why they were questioning them about drugs, she was told the officers were “just curious,” the insitute says in a news release. The officers also said that they were pulling people over for infractions and then “just talking” with them.

Police body cam video, which the group also made public, shows the officers did not simply want to hand out traffic tickets but were fishing for bigger crimes, the group alleges.

After the incident, Rosales asked businesses around the intersection if they had video footage. One did and the recording shows he had used his turn signal. After the body and dashcam footage was requested and provided, it further showed he had used his blinker, the institute says.

Police can't legally pull over drivers without reason to believe they violated a traffic rule or some other law, the law firm said. Officers also expanded the initial stop beyond an investigation into a traffic infraction and searched Rosales without a warrant and without a reason to believe he was armed and dangerous.

“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 Institute for Justice 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 officers also violated the couple's First Amendment rights by prohibiting them from recording the stop on a cellphone, the suit alleges.

“I did nothing wrong, but I still found myself standing on the side of the road wondering whether I would be arrested,” Rosales says in the release. “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.”

This article originally appeared on Alexandria Town Talk: Suit accuses Alexandria police of unlawful traffic stop, interrogation