Oregon Supreme Court Allows Unticketed Drivers To Be Searched Drivers can be stopped and searched even if they do not commit a traffic infraction worthy of a ticket, Oregon Supreme Court rules.
The Supreme Court of Oregon had no problem on Wednesday authorizing police officers to detain and search a motorist who committed no traffic violation worth ticketing. James Kenneth Watson had been driving through Myrtle Creek on April 21, 2008 when Officer Kris Malek recognized him and decided to pull him over. Officer Malek claimed Watson's car briefly crossed over the yellow painted lane divider stripes. Watson said he drifted a bit because he dropped his cell phone and he reached down to grab it.
When pulled over, Officer Malek decided not to issue a ticket. He asked for license and registration and began questioning Watson while he waited for dispatch to confirm the license and check for arrest warrants. Watson was ordered out of his vehicle and asked whether he was a drug dealer and whether he would submit to a search. Watson refused.
Deputy Clayton Ruble arrived on the scene and claimed he smelled a "pretty strong" odor of marijuana that Officer Malek had not noticed. An officer with a drug dog was called to the scene to sniff Watson's car. The dog indicated and marijuana and cocaine were found. By the time the search ended, dispatch called back to confirm that Watson had no warrants and his license was clean. Watson's attorney moved to suppress the evidence from the search he maintained had been illegal.
"We allowed review to address the constitutional limits on police action during the course of a lawful traffic stop," Justice Martha L. Walters explained in the court's opinion. "This court has not often considered the constitutional limits on police activity during lawful traffic stops due, in part, to the role that Oregon statutory law has played in its analysis."
Like the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, Oregon's constitution protects against unreasonable searches. State law lays out the explicit authority of police to detain a person for a traffic violation with an investigation "reasonably related" to the violation. The court found this sufficient to pull over Watson.
"In the case before us, Malek's stop of defendant was lawful at its inception," Walters wrote. "Although Malek lacked probable cause to arrest defendant, he had probable cause to believe that defendant had committed a noncriminal traffic violation."
Watson argued he was detained for ten minutes for a warrants check and a criminal investigation into drug use that was unrelated to the traffic stop. The court disagreed.
"Contrary to defendant's position, however, verification of a person's identity and the issuance of a citation are not the only activities that may be reasonably related to the investigation," Walters wrote. "An officer who stops a driver also may release the driver, and a reasonable investigation may therefore include a determination of whether the driver has valid driving privileges."
The court declined to consider whether the officer's other actions, including asking about drugs and ordering Watson out of the vehicle, constituted constitutional violations because they did not lead to discovery of the contraband. Deputy Ruble's smelling the marijuana was what led to the discovery, the court concluded.
A copy of the decision is available in a 90k PDF file at the source link below.