Can an Investigative Stop by Police of Your Vehicle violate the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution?

The law affects us everyday. It can be confusing but it gives order to our activities and allows us to live a more safe and satisfying life. It is my goal with this newsletter to help my past, present and future clients put the law on their side and to say thank you to them for their support and trust.

Nicholas Nighswander on behalf of
Nicholas M Nighswander PLLC Attorney at Law

Stewart Turley appealed his conviction in the trial court for first degree possession of a controlled substance, possession of marijuana, and of being a second degree persistent felony offender that resulted in a twenty-year prison sentence for him as a matter of right to the Kentucky Supreme Court. As grounds for his appeal, Turley contended that the trial court erred when it did not grant his motion to suppress the drug-related evidence seized from his vehicle during a routine traffic stop.

The legal basis for his contention was that the discovery of the evidence occurred as a result of a custodial detainment that extended beyond the original purpose for the traffic stop by police in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Under case law precedent, an investigative detention must be temporary and can extend no longer than necessary to complete the purpose of the stop.

The Kentucky Supreme Court concluded that the evidence was found after the purpose of the investigative stop had been concluded, and no exception occurred allowing the police officer to extend the time beyond the temporary nature of the stop, the trial court then erred in not suppressing the drug-related evidence.

Turley was driving a Ford F-150 pick up truck with two passengers when a state trooper observed him speeding. The license plate on the truck was also poorly illuminated. The trooper stopped the truck for those violations. The windows on the truck were tinted to make it difficult to see the passengers inside. Turley was asked to exit the vehicle and perform some field sobriety tests. The trooper said that Turley passed the tests and then confirmed the status of his license and proof of registration. Once that was completed, the trooper said that Turley could be on his way, indicating that the purpose for the traffic stop had ended. Turley then headed back to his truck.

The trooper, instead of leaving and going on his way, then uncharacteristically accompanied Turley back to his truck with the intention to detain the two passengers in the truck for investigative purposes under what is known as a Terry stop. A Terry stop allows a brief detention if an officer has reasonable suspicion to believe that criminal activity is occurring and his safety may be compromised. The trooper testified however that the reason for the detention was that he just wanted to see who the passengers were and make sure they were not wanted persons. Important to the Supreme Court was that the trooper testified that the passengers were not engaged in, or about to engage in, any criminal activity to justify a Terry stop.

As Turley was sitting back in his truck with the passengers, the trooper noticed a small box near the console and asked Turley about its contents, Turley responded that he did not know what was in it as it was not his. The trooper persisted in his quest to know its contents and would have pursued Turley if he had driven away. Turley then tried to open the box but the view was blocked to the trooper. The trooper then testified that he feared for his safety and quickly grabbed the box. A bag of marijuana fell out of it. The trooper then arrested Turley and ordered the passengers out of the truck. A search of the truck turned up other drugs, two pistols and over $3,000.00 in cash. Turley was later indicted for the charges above.

Turley tried to suppress the evidence at the trial court as an unlawful seizure under the Fourth Amendment as fruit of the poisonous tree as the trooper’s actions after telling him to be on his way were unconstitutional. The trial court denied his motion on the basis that the continued detention was consensual as he could have driven away. The seizure of the box then was authorized when the trooper believed it contained a weapon and threatened his safety. After a jury trial, Turley was found guilty of the charges listed above. He then appealed as a matter of right to the Kentucky Supreme Court.

The Kentucky Supreme Court reviewed the motion for suppression of the evidence in a two-pronged analysis. First, whether the trial court’s findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, and if supported by substantial evidence, then second, the Court conducts a new review of the court’s application of the law to the facts to determine if there was clear error by the trial court in that application.

Here the Kentucky Supreme Court in a detailed analysis of the facts of this case as applied to the law determined that the trial court clearly erred in its application of the law to the facts of this case and substantial evidence existed in the reverse to support Turley’s motion to suppress the evidence seized from the unlawful search of his truck from the prolonged detention by the trooper. Turley’s twenty-year sentence and guilty judgment were reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings based upon the decision, i.e., most likely a get-out-of-jail free card.

The link for this Kentucky Supreme Court Case follows.

This case is not yet final and should not be cited as legal authority.

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