Sanders Shooting Fallout
Franklin and Quintana testify
The legal maneuvers have begun in the aftermath of the fatal May 11 police shooting of Nathaniel Sanders II.
Michael Franklin – who was driving the Mercedes-Benz station wagon just minutes before Austin Police Officer Leonardo Quintana shot and killed Sanders, who had been asleep in the car's backseat – said in court last week that he noticed Quintana's patrol car behind him as he drove toward the Walnut Creek apartments on Springdale Road on May 11, but said, "I wasn't worried about him." Franklin said Quintana hadn't switched on his spotlight or siren, and moreover, Franklin said, he wasn't doing anything wrong – he was simply being a friend to Sanders and the car's owner, Sir Smith, who was passed out in the front seat, by driving them home. Franklin had found Smith and Sanders asleep in the car at the after-hours club Ozone; he'd tried and failed to wake Smith. The pair were clearly too "messed up" to drive themselves home, Franklin said.
But by the time he parked the car near his brother's apartment and stepped out, Quintana had turned his car around and had fixed his car's spotlight onto Franklin. "That's how I knew he wanted to talk with me," Franklin said. Franklin said Quintana got out of the car with his gun and flashlight in hand, and pointed the flashlight at Franklin. Quintana frisked Franklin and told him he was going to put him in the back of the patrol car until he could roust Sanders and Smith.
Minutes later, Smith had been shot in the chest and Sanders was dead.
But did Officer Quintana have a legal right to stop and detain Franklin that morning after Franklin had parked the car? Was there "reasonable suspicion" that the car's occupants had engaged in criminal activity? Those are the questions that at press time are still before Travis County Court at Law No. 5 Judge Nancy Hohengarten, who has been asked by Franklin's attorney Jason McMinn to rule that Quintana did not have a reason to detain and arrest Franklin. Franklin was on parole at the time, and several weeks after the shooting was charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana – police say they found his fingerprint on the inside of a baggie recovered inside the Mercedes.
Ostensibly, the question before Hohengarten is limited strictly to whether police had reason to approach Franklin, but the answer to that question has a broader implication: If police had no cause to approach Franklin, was there any reason for Quintana or any other officer to be inside the Mercedes, or to attempt to wake Sanders? And if the answer is no, was Sanders' death the result of an illegal search?
Travis County prosecutors argue that Quintana had more than enough information to justify detaining Franklin – in fact, the state had "massive amounts of reasonable suspicion," Assistant County Attorney Julie Trumm said in court. Police had been on the lookout for a white van that had reportedly been used in a string of robberies (during which at least one victim had been shot), and they had information that at least one witness had seen suspects get out of the van and enter a gold-colored station wagon. Just days before the Sanders shooting, police had received several 911 calls reporting random shots fired in the parking lot of the Walnut Creek complex; callers also reported the incident being connected to a station wagon.
So on May 11, according to prosecutors, when Quintana spotted the Mercedes wagon, he had ample reason to want to see who was in the car. In fact, the state argues, Quintana didn't actually initiate a "stop" of the wagon at all, he simply approached Franklin after he'd parked and gotten out of the vehicle. "The state contends that this was an encounter, not a stop," Trumm said. Franklin "was not stopped for any traffic violation; he was out of the car when [Quintana] first approached him. This was a consensual encounter." Quintana searched Franklin, found nothing, and put him in the back of his APD patrol car until he could roust Sanders and Smith.
McMinn argues that there was no direct connection between his client and the robbery reports, the white van, or the reports of gunfire linked to a station wagon. He argued that Quintana's decision to stop Franklin in the parking lot of the complex was most certainly a "stop" and not merely an encounter. "Quintana ... drew his gun almost immediately. That's not an encounter; that's a stop," McMinn said. "What happened here was more about profiling."
Testifying the day before Franklin, Quintana told the court that he never turned on his in-car video camera because he was too busy watching Franklin, who he said he thought might have had a gun. "My fear is that he was possibly reaching for a weapon or something," he said. "I had to get myself out of the ... car. That took precedence over hitting my lights and camera." But McMinn argued that the initial stop was bad: There was no reason to stop Franklin or to detain him, and thus everything that flowed from that stop – importantly, the subsequent pot possession charge – must be considered "fruit from the poisonous tree" and suppressed.
If Hohengarten denies McMinn's request to suppress the evidence, Franklin's trial will start Sept. 21.