The Fourth Circuit Considers Whether a Prolonged Search Is Constitutional

cigarette smokeAs has been discussed in prior posts on this blog, police officers who stop and search individuals in their vehicles, on the street, or in their homes must have probable cause for such a search and seizure. They cannot simply stop individuals at a whim and require that they open up their property and homes to officers. Instead, they must have a legitimate basis for believing that a crime may have occurred that justifies further investigation. But what happens when an initial stop is supported by probable cause, but the search expands to other individuals, other property, or a longer period of time? These types of searches may also be unconstitutional if they are not sufficiently limited in scope and duration. A recent case before the Fourth Circuit addressed whether West Virginia police officers exceeded the appropriate scope during a routine traffic stop.

In United States v. White, West Virginia officers stopped the vehicle of Erica Tuenis after she was observed swerving across lanes while on the road. Mr. White was a passenger in the vehicle when it was stopped.  When the officer approached Ms. Tuenis’ vehicle, he noticed an odor of marijuana. The officer asked Ms. Tuenis to exit the vehicle and, after talking with her, determined that she was not impaired or intoxicated. He asked her if she had been smoking marijuana, and she said no, but she did not know if her passengers had been.  The officer returned to the vehicle and asked to speak with Mr. White. Mr. White denied having any marijuana in his vehicle, and the officer asked him to step out of the car briefly. After Mr. White exited the car, the officer observed a firearm tucked into the side of the passenger seat. He called for backup and arrested Mr. White.  After being read his Miranda rights, Mr. White admitted that the firearm was his. He was later charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm because he had several prior burglary convictions.

At trial, Mr. White moved to suppress the evidence of the firearm, arguing that it was illegally obtained during the traffic stop. The trial court denied the motion, finding that there was probable cause to stop the vehicle initially and subsequent probable cause to search the vehicle after the odor of marijuana was discovered. Mr. White took a plea deal and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. On appeal, he argued that his motion to suppress was wrongly denied.

On appeal, Mr. White argued that his firearm was wrongly obtained when the police officer’s traffic stop was unconstitutionally prolonged. The Fourth Circuit noted that two factors must be considered when evaluating the constitutionality of a traffic stop:  first, whether there was probable cause to initiate the stop in the first place, and, second, whether the officer’s subsequent actions after the stop were “sufficiently limited in scope and duration.”  The Fourth Circuit held that it was clear that there was a basis for the stop, given the traffic violation that the police officer observed.

As to the second prong, the Fourth Circuit held that officers were required to use the least intrusive means to verify or dispel their suspicions over the shortest possible period of time. To prolong a stop, the officer must get the permission of the driver or have a further reasonable suspicion to believe another crime has occurred. In the Fourth Circuit, courts have repeatedly held that the odor of marijuana provides probable cause to believe that marijuana may be present, and further searching is required. Since the officer smelled marijuana upon approaching the car, the Fourth Circuit held that he had additional probable cause to prolong his traffic stop and conduct a further investigation. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit concluded that probable cause existed, and the trial court did not err in denying the motion to suppress.

Police officers may not invade the private rights of individuals without a sufficient basis to do so. Their searches and seizures must be grounded in identifiable facts and circumstances. However, when illegal substances are observed, or appear to exist based on smell or sight, probable cause for prolonging a search into one’s belongings is likely to exist.  If you have recently been subjected to a search and seizure that you believe was unconstitutionally prolonged, you should speak with a 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.

Related blog posts:

The Fourth Amendment and the Government’s Right to Cell Data – United States v. Graham

Unreasonable Search and Seizure Under the Fourth Amendment – United States v. Palmer

Dog Sniff for Drugs in Car Doesn’t Require Probable Cause, West Virginia Supreme Court Says – State v. Brock