The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is a fundamental pillar of protection for the rights of criminal defendants and all those seeking to protect their individual freedoms. Central to the Fourth Amendment is the prohibition against unlawful searches and seizures. This means that police or other governmental officials cannot search the private property of an individual, including his or her home or car, without having probable cause to do so. Likewise, an individual cannot be seized, nor can items be seized from one’s property, without such justifications. But the question of what constitutes a reasonable basis for a search by the police is a complicated one. While police may feel that the facts available to them warrant further investigation, potential defendants will often feel that their rights have been violated without sufficient reason. A recent case in the Fourth Circuit considers which circumstances may constitute a justification for the search of a stopped vehicle.
In United States v. Palmer, Mr. Palmer was stopped by police in Virginia on suspicion of windows that were illegally tinted and an inspection sticker that was believed to be false. When the officer approached the vehicle for a license and registration, he noticed that Mr. Palmer appeared very nervous and that there were five air fresheners hanging in the car. When he called in Mr. Palmer’s information, he learned that Mr. Palmer was a suspected member of a local gang and had prior drug convictions. The officer called for a drug dog backup and had the outside of the vehicle reviewed by the dog. The dog indicated that the vehicle contained drugs, and the vehicle was then searched. Crack cocaine was discovered in the car.
At trial, Mr. Palmer filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from his car, arguing that it was the result of an unreasonable search and seizure. Upon a careful review of the evidence, including the testimony of the officer at the scene, the court determined that there was an objectively reasonable basis to expand the scope of the traffic stop and probable cause for the search based on eight different factors, including Mr. Palmer’s nervous demeanor, his prior drug history, his possible gang affiliation, and the air fresheners in the vehicle. Accordingly, the motion to suppress was denied. Mr. Palmer was ultimately convicted and later appealed his conviction, arguing that the officer lacked a reasonable basis for the traffic stop, as well as a reasonable basis to expand the scope of the stop.
Since traffic stops constitute a seizure under the Fourth Amendment, police officers must have a reasonable basis for making them. They are justified in doing so when the stop is necessary to investigate possible vehicular violations, such as the illegal tinting of windows. However, that does not permit officers to search a vehicle in its entirety or expand their stop beyond the scope of the vehicle violation at issue. Instead, in order to investigate other issues, the office must have an independent reasonable basis to believe that criminal activity may be occurring. Finally, to actually search the private property of another person, like a car, the officer must have probable cause to believe that the car contains evidence of the criminal activity.
Here, the Fourth Circuit held that the officer clearly had a reasonable basis for the stop. There were apparent violations of Virginia’s vehicle laws. Likewise, the court held that when the office began to inquire into Palmer’s possible drug and criminal history through a check of Palmer’s information, this provided a reasonable basis to expand the scope of the stop into a possible investigation of drug-related criminal activity. Indeed, the court found the eight bases for reasonable suspicion identified by the court were more than enough to justify the expanded scope. Likewise, they also provided the probable cause necessary to search the vehicle. Accordingly, Palmer’s appeal was denied.
Fourth Amendment issues arise frequently in criminal defense cases, particularly those involving alleged drug crimes. It’s important that a person facing criminal charges seek the counsel of an experienced criminal defense attorney. The West Virginia criminal defense lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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