TOPEKA — The conviction of a Topeka man accused of participating in a drive-by shooting that wounded one person has been overturned by the Kansas Court of Appeals.
The court ruled the car stop conducted by Topeka police, which lead to the arrest of Ralfeal Eron Carr, was unlawful. Therefore key evidence obtained in the stop shouldn’t have been admissible during Carr’s trial in Shawnee County District Court.
In January, Carr, 37, was convicted by a jury of aggravated battery in the July 2015 shooting of Royelle L. Miller in the Hi-Crest neighborhood. Jurors also found Carr guilty of possession of marijuana. He was acquitted of discharging a firearm at an occupied dwelling, fleeing or attempting to elude police and misdemeanor traffic violations. A judge sentenced him to nine years and four months in prison. According to Kansas Department of Corrections records, Carr’s earliest possible release date is April 18, 2022.
Shortly after Miller was shot, Topeka police officers Barry Nelson and Scott Koch saw a dark-colored Dodge Durango run a stop sign. They attempted to stop the vehicle, but it sped away, resulting in a chase. The Durango wasn’t apprehended.
Miller said he saw a dark-colored car drive by when he was shot, but didn’t see who fired at him. Officers spoke to a neighbor who reported seeing Carr earlier that day driving a black SUV and making threats. They also talked to Georgia Kelley, who said she had loaned her Durango to Carr, her nephew, court records indicated.
The next day, officers continued to investigate. When Nelson saw a black Ford Explorer he associated with Carr, he stopped it. Kelley was driving the vehicle and Carr was a passenger. Carr was arrested. Officers found a car key and a piece of loose marijuana. Later they determined the key belonged to the Durango.
The appeals court said, “officers must have reasonable suspicion — an objective and specific basis for suspecting that the person being stopped is involved in criminal activity, either because the person is committing a crime, has committed a crime, or is about to commit a crime.”
The court noted the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment provides protection from unreasonable searches or seizures and that vehicle stops are considered seizures.
The judges went on to ask, “Did the officers support the claim of reasonable suspicion with specific and articulable facts?”
During a hearing in the district court criminal case, Nelson said he hadn’t seen a traffic violation and he didn’t know who was in the Explorer before stopping it. He associated the vehicle with Carr because he knew a relative of Carr owned a black Explorer and had seen it at Carr’s residence.
The appeals court concluded, “the officers had a hunch or hope that Carr was in his relative’s vehicle but no facts or knowledge to support that hunch or hope…Because the officers lacked reasonable suspicion that Carr was in the vehicle, they had no legal cause to stop the vehicle.”
The key and marijuana, obtained as a result of the stop, shouldn’t have been admitted as evidence at the trial.
Christopher Joseph, Carr’s attorney, said the court’s ruling is a warning on how police should conduct traffic stops.
“Police stopped a car that they claimed was ‘associated with’ the defendant without first looking to see who was inside. Had they looked first, they might have had a valid basis to stop the car,” Joseph said. “The court’s decision reminds police of the consequences of cutting corners.”
Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay said he was aware of the appeals court’s decision.
“My office will now evaluate the merits and determine whether to petition the Kansas Supreme Court for review of the case,” Kagay said. “The deadline for making that decision is November 27, 2017.”
The Topeka Police Department didn’t respond to a request for comment.