The police pull you over for speeding. The officer checks your criminal history and you have some old drug convictions. The officer thinks you look “nervous” and ask to search your car. You say no. The cop calls for the drug dog and 30 minutes later finds 200 grams of meth. Is that a legal search?
Such are the facts of The State of Texas, Appellant v. Gregory Daivd Pierce, Appellee. This is an unpublished opinion, but still a useful example of search and seizure. The trial court suppressed the search and all the evidence (drugs) founds. The State appealed and the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed that the search was indeed illegal.
“But they found drugs!! A lot of drugs!”
I can hear the objections that we need to take drugs off the street. However, the 4th amendment applies regardless of what evidence is seized. Drug warriors shouldn’t worry, we have set the bar pretty low for police searches. We only ask that cops have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
Why was this search illegal?
When the police pull you over for speeding they are only allowed to detain you long enough to investigate speeding. They can check your license and insurance, run a warrant check, and ask some basic questions. But a stop for a traffic offense alone does not give the police the right to search your car.
For a further investigative detention the police need reasonable suspicion. In this case Officer Spano thought Mr. Pierce was acting “nervous”. He knew Mr. Pierce had a record. In fact Mr. Pierce had a warrant out of California (but CA refused to extradite). However, those observations are not enough to detain a driver and bring out the drug dog.
From the Court of Appeals-
Here the facts and the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom are insufficient to support the conclusion that Pierce was engaged in or soon would engage in criminal activity; the suspicious conduct relied upon by Spano was as consistent with innocent activity as with criminal activity. See Carmouche, 10 S.W.3d at 328-39. Therefore, we reject the State’s argument. We conclude Spano lacked reasonable suspicion to continue the detention beyond the time necessary to complete the initial purpose of the stop. See St. George v. State, 237 S.W.3d 720, 727 (Tex. Crim. App. 2007); Kothe, 152 S.W.3d at 63; see also Lambeth, 221 S.W.3d at 336. Thus, Pierce’s continued detention beyond that time was unreasonable. See St. George, 237 S.W.3d at 727; Kothe, 152 S.W.3d at 63.
Never Consent To Police Searches
Gregory David Pierce made one important decision that probably kept him out of jail. He refused to let the police search. The officer asked for consent to search and Mr. Pierce rightly said no. This officer then threatened to bring the drug dog out, and did.
If Gregory had read my earlier piece on police searches, he would know that police often threaten drivers with the drug dog. That is NEVER a reason to let them search your car. If the police ask you to search, just say no.
Finally, this case is not over. The State could appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals. If so, COCA could ignore these rulings to save this search. Such is the nature of appellate law. However, as of today two separate courts have ruled this search illegal.