When individuals are stopped on suspicion of a DUI, they will often find that they are asked if their car may be searched for any evidence of alcohol or drugs. In addition to searching a vehicle, police may also attempt to search the individual themselves, including engaging in a pat-down, checking pockets or purses, or otherwise ensuring that there is no illegal substance or proof of intoxication on the person at the time. Depending on the context of the stop and the information known to the officer at the time, these searches may be legal or illegal under the Fourth Amendment’s right to protection from unlawful searches and seizures. A recent case before the Georgia Court of Appeals considered whether evidence collected from a person at the time of a traffic stop could be suppressed on this basis at trial.
In this appellate case, R.C. was stopped after driving with expired tags. When the officers stopped him and met him at his car, they noticed an odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle. They also noticed that R.C.’s eyes were “red and glassy.” The officers asked R.C. to leave his vehicle and asked him if he had marijuana in his vehicle. After he stated that he did not, they searched the vehicle and found two small bottles of marijuana. When the officers finished searching the car and returned to R.C., they noticed that he continued to smell like marijuana. Based on this observation, they searched R.C.’s outer clothing and pockets and found an additional bag of marijuana. R.C. was charged and at trial moved to suppress the evidence obtained from his shirt pocket because the officers did not have a reasonable suspicion to search that area. The court disagreed and denied the motion to suppress. R.C. was convicted and appealed.
Here, the appellate court reasoned, the question was whether the officers had probable cause to conduct an unwarranted search of R.C.’s pockets. The court noted that the officers had explained that R.C.’s eyes were red and glassy, and they smelled marijuana in the vehicle and then smelled marijuana again on R.C.’s person. Based on this cumulative evidence, the appeals court concluded that, under a totality of the circumstances, the officers did have probable cause to search R.C.’s person. The appellate court further held that nothing about the search of R.C. extended the scope of the original traffic stop beyond a permissible time. In total, the complete search of R.C.’s vehicle and person took only 30 minutes, and the steps taken by the officers in first searching the vehicle and then searching R.C. were logical and reasonable. Accordingly, overall, the Court of Appeals held that the search of R.C. and his vehicle was not unlawful, and the trial court was correct in declining to grant the motion to suppress.
While the scope of a police officer’s legal ability to search you or your vehicle can be fairly broad, it is not unlimited. Officers must be able to show that their decision to search was based on a reasonable suspicion, such that they were able to obtain a warrant, or that they had probable cause for a warrantless search. Both of these standards require more than simple speculation or conjecture and are meant to protect the rights of the defendant from offensive, invasive, and illegal searching. The Athens DUI defense attorneys at Baker and Slider, LLC have filed successful motions to suppress on behalf of many defendants, arguing that a search conducted by a police officer exceeded the scope of what was legally permitted. For more information or to set up an initial consultation, contact our office at 706-208-1514.
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