Court tosses car theft case based on unlawful arrest

The Oregon Court of Appealson Wednesday threw out Alexander Hebrard's conviction for "Unauthorized Use of a Motor Vehicle" (Oregon's car theft statute) because he was arrested without probable cause.

The case is rather uncontroversial in holding that standing near a stolen car does not give the police probable cause to arrest someone. Nor is there much controversy in the Court's finding that Mr. Hebrard was "arrested" when he was placed in handcuffs without the police having any concerns for their safety.

What is remarkable about this case is that it got this far. The case hinged on whether or not Mr. Hebrard was "stopped" or "arrested" when the police handcuffed him. Oregon law has long defined a "stop" of a person as a "temporary restraint" of that person's liberty or freedom. A police officer can "stop" a person if they have only a "reasonable suspicion" that they have or are about to commit a crime. A stop is supposed to be less intrusive and less restrictive than a full-blown arrest.

A police officer needs to have "probable cause" to make such a full-blown arrest. Probable cause means that it is more likely than not that a crime has been committed by the person being arrested.

In today's case the state argued that because Mr. Hebrard was standing in a driveway 20-30 feet from a stolen car that had recently been driven, the police were entitled to arrest him. Alternatively, they argued that because there were three other people with him at the time, their safety was in jeopardy and they could handcuff Mr. Hebrard without actually "arresting" him.

Most people would have a hard time believing they were not under arrest if a police officer put them in handcuffs. Similarly, most people wouldn't think that they could be arrested because they just happened to be standing near to a recently moving stolen car. ( I bet there is on average a stolen car on every city block in some areas of Portland!)

It took a motion to suppress hearing, a trial, and a successful Court of Appeals case for the State of Oregon to figure it out. Such cases are a reminder about how quickly someone can be unlawfully caught up in the criminal justice system. But for the hard work of criminal defense attorneys Mr. Hebrard's conviction would stand.

A happy result for Mr. Hebrard and the rule of law? Not quite. Mr. Hebrard was convicted on September 8, 2008. He was sentenced to serve 26 months in prison to be followed by one year of post prison supervision for the offense which today was thrown out. Along the way his request for a sentence reduction was denied.

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