Evidence Suppressed When Officer Puts Head too Far into Vehicle

Constitutionality can often be a question of inches. What an officer does, or where he or she goes in the process of investigating or arresting someone can be the difference between evidence being constitutional and thus admissible or being excluded.

Officer Smells Drugs

A recent case dealt with the question of what happens when an officer’s head comes just inches too far into a defendant’s vehicle. The case arose when an officer stopped a man for speeding. When the man rolled down his window, the officer testified that he smelled an odor of marijuana when he learned his head into the car through the open window. Another officer was called to the scene, who conducted a scan with a trained police dog. The dog alerted officers to the presence of drugs, and the defendant himself admitted to it.

The defendant moved to suppress the evidence against him, arguing that the officer’s head wrongfully crossed the threshold of his windshield before the officer smelled the drugs. The video did show the officer’s head crossing that threshold, but the court held that it was “not clear” when the officer smelled the drugs, and refused to suppress the evidence.

Appeal Questions When Officer Smelled Marijuana

On appeal, the defendant argued that because the court was not clear on when the officer smelled the marijuana, the evidence should have been suppressed. He argued that if the officer had smelled the marijuana after his head crossed the windshield threshold, it would have had to have been suppressed, but the trial court was unable to make that determination. Thus, the state could not have met its burden.

The appellate court agreed that the question of when the officer smelled the marijuana was determinative. There was nothing else that would have created the probable cause necessary to warrant any search and seizure. In fact, the car was stopped only for a routine traffic violation.

Without anything to provide probable cause, the search would be illegal because entering a vehicle is a search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The only event that created the probable cause here, smelling the marijuana, thus had to occur before the intrusion into the vehicle.

But nobody knew when the officer smelled the drugs. Here, the court could not determine when the officer smelled the marijuana. The officer himself testified he could not recall the exact moment he picked up on the odor.

Ambiguity Leads to Suppression

Where there is inconclusive evidence of whether a warrantless search is authorized, or where there is ambiguity over whether there is probable cause, the defendant must prevail—that is, the search will be deemed to be illegal.

When that happens, any evidence obtained as a result of the illegal search, must be suppressed. Because such ambiguity existed here, the court overturned the conviction against the defendant, ruling the officer’s actions constituted an illegal search and seizure of the vehicle when his head broached the threshold of the car.

If you are charged with a crime make sure the state meets its burden to prove the charges against you. If you are arrested, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your rights.