POLICE GET FREER REIN IN SEARCHES. OHIO JUSTICES ALLOW LOOKING FOR DRUGS, GUNS ON TRAFFIC STOPS ON BASIS OF SUSPICION.
March 29, 2007 By James Nash The Columbus Dispatch
Justice Paul E. Pfeifer,”… this court would have the state treat forgetful people as hardened criminals.”
Police in Ohio can search vehicles for guns and drugs if a person stopped for a routine traffic violation is behaving suspiciously, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a 4-3 decision, the court said a suburban Cincinnati police department did not violate a man’s rights when it had a dog sniff his car as an officer wrote him a ticket for having an expired license and registration.
The dog detected marijuana residue and, during a search of the man’s car, police found a gun.
Attorneys for the man, 36-year-old William Kavanagh, said the search violated his Fourth Amendment protection against unlawful search and seizure because Blue Ash police had no valid reason to suspect he was intoxicated or armed.
The court’s decision yesterday opens the door for police throughout Ohio to detain drivers and impound vehicles for routine traffic violations, said one of Kavanagh’s attorneys, Paul M. Laufman.
“Essentially, the decision stands for the proposition that any citizen who’s stopped for anything other than a minor moving violation can now be detained and have their vehicle impounded and searched,” Laufman said. “That’s scary.”
The ruling is in line with other state courts’ decisions to grant police broader authority to search for criminal violations when they stop someone for a traffic violation, said Ric Simmons, an Ohio State University law professor and former assistant prosecutor in New York. Simmons said yesterday’s decision does not represent a major change in Ohio.
“I think the potential for abuse has always been there,” he said. “In this case you could make the argument that (police) took the powers they had and maybe used them too much.”
Blue Ash’s attorney, David P. Fornshell, said police did not overstep their bounds in searching and impounding Kavanagh’s car. The man’s nervous behavior and long-expired driver’s license heightened suspicions that he might have criminal violations, Fornshell said.
“I think this decision affirms that police departments have the discretion to do their jobs, but it’s not an unfettered discretion,” Fornshell said. “This is a job, and police departments need the discretion every day to do their jobs.”
The State Highway Patrol uses drug-sniffing dogs around the periphery of vehicles when there is reason to suspect drug use, said Lt. Tony Bradshaw, patrol spokesman.
Bradshaw said that after the Oklahoma City bombing and Sept. 11 terrorist attack, the patrol has stressed using routine traffic stops to uncover criminal activity.
“Those little indicators can lead to something more,” he said.
An appeals court had ruled that Blue Ash police illegally searched and seized Kavanagh’s car because they had no grounds to detain him after issuing tickets for the expired license and registration.
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, writing for the majority, said police acted properly in examining the car because they had planned to tow it and needed to inventory its contents.
“This decision was based on the fact that defendant could not lawfully operate any vehicle because his driver’s license had been expired for nearly three months, and the vehicle itself could not be legally driven by any driver because the license plates had been expired for nearly three months,” she wrote.
Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer, Justice Maureen O’Connor and appeals Judge Donna J. Carr, who sat in for retired Justice Alice Robie Resnick, agreed with Stratton. Justices Terrence O’Donnell and Judith Lanzinger said the court should not have accepted the case.
Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, who also said the court should have rejected the appeal, argued that police overreacted to a minor violation.
“In a simpler time, a person who forgot to renew his license or registration was given a warning and expected to renew the license or registration as soon as possible,” he wrote. “But now, this court would have the state treat forgetful people as hardened criminals.”