Comprehensive and Informative Commentary on State and Federal Legal Matters
In what should be seen as a major victory for Virginia motorists, the Federal 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the suppression of drugs found in the defendant’s car during what should have been a routine traffic stop. In this particular case, the defendant was originally pulled over by trooper Christopher Conner for allegedly tailgating another motorist on I-95. However, rather than simply issuing a ticket for the tailgating offense, the Trooper proceeded to question the man for more than 10 minutes as to whether or not he had any illegal substances in his car, called for backup, and then began questioning the driver once again as to the subject of drugs. Eventually, after being subjected to a barrage of questions, the defendant consented to a vehicle search. It was this search that lead to the discovery of the drugs for the possession of which the defendant was charged.
Ultimately, the defendant’s counsel filed a motion to prevent the submission of these drugs into evidence on the grounds that the officer’s harassment lead to an involuntary search. The 4th Circuit upheld this motion after concluding that the officer’s actions went beyond the parameters of a permissible search and seizure as stated in the Fourth Amendment and further outlined in Terry v. Ohio.
As was decided in Terry v. Ohio states, a search and seizure such as this is only permissible when “the officer’s action was justified at [the inception of the traffic stop]” and “the officer’s subsequent actions were reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the stop.” In other words, the officer must act in accordance with the standard procedure associated with the purpose of the stop. Without some evidence to justify a “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity,” the officer can not simply abandon the traffic infraction purpose of the stop to investigate another possible crime. Since it was determined that this was, in fact, what took place during the stop in question, the Court ruled that the officer’s actions qualified as a violation of the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights.
This case is of tremendous relevance to Virginia drivers because the Court’s decision further protects citizens’ Fourth Amendment right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. Additionally, this decision serves to send a firm reminder to police officers in the Commonwealth that “a traffic stop must be reasonable both in its scope and duration.” To pull an individual over for the purpose of conducting an investigative probe into whether or not they are in violation of some other law is both unjust and illegal.
For more information on this case, please feel free to read the Court’s decision in full here.