Sample Memorandum: In Support of Defendant Thomas Jefferson's Motion to Suppress
by Erik L. Smith
On June 20, 2001, about midnight, Officer Smith of the Columbus Police stopped Defendant in his car for turning without signaling. Officer Smith pulled Defendant over, ordered Defendant out of the car, and patted him down. Finding nothing, Officer Smith placed Defendant in the back seat of the police cruiser. Officer Smith searched Defendant's car and discovered cocaine in the closed glove compartment. He also made a computer inquiry for Defendant's license status, but the search was aborted by a technical glitch. On a later computer attempt, Officer Smith learned Defendant's license was suspended pending a reinstatement fee. Officer Smith cited Defendant for not signaling and for driving under suspension.
The stop occurred in a "high drug crime" area. Officer Smith also knew, from a separate previous incident, that Defendant had his license suspended for six months, starting in June 2000. Defendant never resisted or acted belligerent during the stop.
For an officer to detain a person for reasons unrelated to the original purpose of a traffic stop and make a search, an officer must have articulable facts giving rise to reasonable suspicion that some illegal activity justifying the extended detention is occurring. State v. Robinette (1997), 80 Ohio St.3d 234. This need for additional, articulable facts holds even where the traffic stop occurs late at night in a high crime area, or is in line with a drug enforcement policy. See, 00-1519 (2002), United States v. Arvizu; Robinette. Without the additional articulable facts, a valid, but routine, traffic stop will not justify non-consensual search absent an immediate safety concern.
For example, in State v. Brown (1992), 63 Ohio St.3d 349, a police officer rightly stopped and arrested a lone motorist for driving while intoxicated. The officer saw no drug paraphernalia or other evidence of drug use in the vehicle, yet he immediately placed the suspect in the patrol car and searched the motorist's car. The officer found LSD in the glove compartment.
The Court held that the search of the car was unconstitutional because nothing led the officer to believe the car might contain drugs. The drugs were not in plain view and the officer witnessed no suspicious behavior. Nor was the search justified for safety reasons because the detainee had complied with the officer and, being in the cruiser, lacked immediate control over the car's contents. Brown, at 352-353.
Brown's scenario parallels ours. Defendant was the only person in his car. The officer immediately ordered Defendant out of the car, patted him down, and placed him in the cruiser. Officer Smith saw no drug paraphernalia or other evidence of drug use before searching the car, and the cocaine he found was not in plain view. The car's contents were never inventoried nor should they have been. Officer Smith's safety was not in immediate question because Defendant never resisted arrest and, being in the cruiser, he lacked immediate control over the car's contents.
Unlike the detainee in Brown, Defendant was driving at night through a high drug crime area. But being in a high crime area does not, by itself, justify a warrantless search of a vehicle. An officer still needs to perceive some suspicious behavior or circumstance justifying the search. See, Arvizu.
Officer Smith saw no suspicious behavior. There were no furtive gestures, suspect resistance, nervousness, vehicle alterations, volunteered information from Defendant, or anything else to foster an articulable belief in Officer Smith that drugs could be in the car or that a search was called for. With defendant secure in the cruiser, after a pat down search, Officer Smith did not need to search Defendant's car to ensure his own safety. Defendant never consented to the search. That the cocaine would inevitably have been found in an inventory search is no argument because, with a turn signal violation the only suspected offense, there would have been no reason to impound or inventory the car.
The Ohio Supreme Court overruled Brown in 2002, holding that when a police officer has made a lawful custodial arrest of the motorist, the officer may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that car. State v. Murrell (2002), 94 Ohio St.3d 489, citing New York v. Belton (1981), 453 U.S. 454. But the court reminded us that this rule applied only when there was already a lawful custodial arrest. Id. A police officer who searches a vehicle incident to issuing a citation in lieu of an arrest in a routine traffic stop would violate the Fourth Amendment absent an immediate safety concern or need to preserve evidence. Murrell, citing, Knowles v. Iowa (1998), 525 U.S. 113. Here, unlike Brown, the detention was still a routine traffic stop at the time of the search, with only a citation issued for the traffic violation. Officer Smith had no immediate safety concern or need to preserve more evidence for not signaling. Thus, the search of Defendant's car was unreasonable, and the cocaine should be suppressed.
The continued search for Defendant's license status was also unjustified. The scope and duration of an investigative stop must last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the purpose for the initial stop. United States v. Brignoni-Ponce (1975), 422 U.S. 873; State v. Chatton (1984), 11 Ohio St.3d 59. When an officer suspects a violation has occurred regarding the operation of a car yet the suspicion proves inconclusive upon investigation, the officer may not detain the motorist absent articulable suspicion for some other offense. Any steps taken then are efforts only to gain a basis for suspicion.
In State v. Inabnitt (1991), 76 Ohio App.3d 586 (2nd Dist.), an officer stopped a motorist and his passenger who had been described as "suspicious" by an anonymous caller to the police. The caller alleged that the men had been lurking outside pharmacies supply stores. Both men had previous narcotics convictions and when the officer stopped them in their car and questioned them, the men gave contradictory statements about their previous activities. Later, still during the stop, the officer confirmed that one of the men had presented a prescription to a pharmacy for narcotics, but had been refused for being "kind of suspicious." The officer obtained the driver's consent to search the car. When the officer found a prescription receipt with neither man's name on it, he formally arrested both men.
The Appellate Court held that the initial seizure was reasonable, but the continued detention of the suspects was not, because it exceeded the point where the officer's "reasonable suspicions were resolved." When the officer observed no violation regarding the operation of the vehicle, and no warrants outstanding, the detention no longer had foundation. The search instead aimed to find a "basis" for suspicion. All evidence found during the search was suppressed. Inabnitt, at 590.
Officer Smith may have had reason to ask Defendant for his driver's license because he believed Defendant violated a traffic law. But once the computer glitch occurred, Officer Smith, like the officer in Inabnitt, had no reason to detain Defendant further to find a license suspension he had no articulable reason to believe existed. Like the officer in Inabnitt, Officer Smith was trying to find a "basis" for suspicion, not actually acting on a suspicion.
That Officer Smith knew of Defendant's previous six-month license suspension is no argument because Officer Smith knew the suspension occurred at least a year before the incident. Officer Smith had no reason to suspect that the license was still suspended. For these reasons, the continued search for defendant's license status and detention by Officer Smith was illegal.
No articulable facts existed to make Officer Smith reasonably suspect Defendant may have done anything illegal except fail to signal. Before the search, there were no signs of drug possession, and Officer Smith's safety was not immediately threatened. Officer Smith had no reason to believe Defendant's license was suspended. Once the computer search for Defendant's license status proved unfruitful, Officer Smith's search for the license status prolonged Defendant's detention beyond the scope of the original stop.
Thus, the cocaine found in the glove compartment, and the suspended license, should be inadmissible as evidence against Defendant.