Hoang Vinh Pham made a batch of noodles while on a Montana 2017 visit. Then, he noticed something different: a cop van stuffed full of half a ton marijuana. Richard Smith from Montana Division of Criminal Investigations entered the gas station around the same time to use the toilet and to buy water. Smith believed Pham had been looking at the van for an unusually long time. This made Smith wonder whether Pham was involved in any criminal activities.
This hunch led eventually to an investigation that found 19 pounds of marijuana inside Pham’s vehicle. Pham was arrested for possessing intent to distribute and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The Montana Supreme Court unanimously overturned Pham’s 2019 conviction. Smith’s intuition was not sufficient to warrant detaining Pham and questioning him. This required “particularized suspect” that relied on objective data and articulate facts. [an officer]You can draw certain reasonably valid inferences.”
Smith recognized that Smith did not have to meet the test because Pham’s initial contact with Smith after following him to the gas pumps outside was voluntary and “very cordial.” According to the state, it was not a seizure under the Fourth Amendment as an ordinary person would feel free to stop the conversation or leave.
Pham sees things differently because he speaks Vietnamese and can have some difficulties with English. At a suppression hearing, Pham testified that Smith and two troopers “didn’t let me go anywhere.” They kept me there and pulled me out, even when I attempted to pump gas.
Smith admitted that while he “was conscious of the Vietnamese culture teaching deference towards police,” he stated that he didn’t feel he had to inform Pham that he was allowed to leave. He said that Pham understood him even though he believed the language barrier was a problem.
Montana Supreme Court deemed Pham’s portrayal of the scene true. While the government’s credulity was strained,
Pham would have been unable to flee from multiple police officers who asked to inspect his car. Agent Smith was unarmed, and wearing uniform. Agent Smith was plainly law enforcement and had visible ID. Although it is impossible to believe that the constant barrage of questions from Trooper Kilpela (Agent Smith) was not merely “cordial” conversation and idle chat, Pham was allowed to continue his journey. Who willingly would discuss their plans, their family, their travels, and whether they possessed any “guns, knives,…drugs, [or]Child pornography [with]If they didn’t believe they could go, they may have been strangers. Pham understood that he had to answer all the questions.
Smith was forced to look beyond Pham’s obvious interest in the marijuana-stained police van for justification. Smith said that DCI knew of numerous arrests of Vietnamese persons for drug trafficking between Washington and Minnesota on I-94. He denied however that Pham’s ethnicity played any role in his suspicions. The court stated that “based on the scanty information,” it concluded that Agent Smith could not have justified Pham’s seizing. The court concluded that Agent Smith had not provided any objective data to support the conclusion that Pham seizure was unconstitutional.
Pham was unlawfully detained and the search that led to the discovery of the evidence used in his conviction was also illegal. The court therefore did not need to consider the plausibility of the state’s claim that Pham consented to the search of his car. It is difficult to believe Pham would submit to Smith’s interrogation even if it was clear that Smith was not free to take him away. Likewise, Pham wouldn’t have consented to a search that would reveal contraband even if it was obvious that he had the option to refuse.
Like many other cases, this case casts doubt upon the legal fictions courts often invoke to uphold stops by police that lead to criminal convictions. According to the Supreme Court, as long police can prove a valid reason to arrest someone, then they have no obligation to look into other cases. On the assumption that they can never refuse to answer questions, police can ask any question they wish.
The police have the right to continue questioning drivers even if they believe that they can drive. After this point, however, no further cooperation will be required. Fourth Amendment cases frequently involve motorists who consented to police searching their vehicle, even though they were aware they’d end up in jail. Pham’s interaction with Smith illustrates that the notion of any of these actions being voluntary is not something to be taken seriously.