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Kansas Supreme Court: No Search Over Spilled Beer
Unanimous high court ruling in Kansas overturns decision finding a police search is justified if a car smells of alcohol.

Justice Lee A. Johnson
Police cannot search a vehicle merely because it smells like spilled alcohol, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled. The justices last month reviewed the December 19, 2008 traffic stop of Robert G. Stevenson, a man who had been pulled over allegedly because he signaled 30 feet before he made a turn at the intersection instead of the legally required 100-foot distance.

Sedgwick County Sheriff's Detective Jon Gill and Deputy Justin Crafton suspected Stevenson might be involved in drug activity, so they used the 100 foot rule as a pretext for the stop. When Stevenson rolled down the window, the officers immediately were hit with the scent of booze.

"It smelled to me as if an alcohol container had spilled inside the vehicle," Detective Gill testified. "It was a very strong, very strong odor."

The deputy performed a field sobriety test on Stevenson while Detective Gill poked his head inside Stevenson's 2001 Chevrolet Blazer and saw nothing incriminating. Stevenson was perfectly sober, so he was allowed to return to his vehicle. His driver's license checked out and there were no outstanding warrants for his arrest. The officers were unsatisfied with this outcome, so Deputy Crafton decided the strong odor gave him probable cause to search for an open container of alcohol.

The search turned up the culprit, a half-full bottle of red wine behind the driver's seat with a leaky lid that had spilled onto the floorboard. The search also turned up two pipes with a tiny amount of methamphetamine residue. Stevenson was arrested on a drug charge that he argued must be suppressed as the fruit of an illegal search.

The Court of Appeals found no precedent in Kansas for the odor of a legal substance serving as the grounds for a search, so it turned to a case involving a spilled beer that the Idaho Court of Appeals ruled was justification for a search. The Kansas Supreme Court was not impressed by the Idaho court's reasoning. It was even less impressed with the Sedgwick County police officers who demonstrated very little actual interest in the alcohol.

"Here, the state presented absolutely no evidence to even suggest that Stevenson was asked about the origin of the alcoholic odor in his vehicle or whether he was asked if he had recently consumed alcohol," Justice Lee A. Johnson wrote for the majority. "Indeed, the suppression hearing transcript reveals that the officers could not even say whether an odor of alcohol could be detected on Stevenson's person when he was outside of the vehicle."

The officers, the high court found, should have given Stevenson a ticket for the turn signal violation and sent him on his way. He could not have been detained further without evidence of contraband or a crime. The court looked at the open container law and found it is impossible to assume that the smell came from unlawfully transporting alcohol.

"One first observes that the statute does not prohibit the possession of an open container in a vehicle," Justice Johnson wrote.

In an SUV, the open container or unsealed wine bottle can legally be placed "behind the last upright seat."

"Country common sense would likewise lead one to believe that an intoxicated person would be more likely to have an open container in the vehicle from which he or she had been drinking than a sober person who had passed the field sobriety tests," Justice Johnson wrote. "Here, we know that Stevenson was cleared of driving under the influence, and we do not know whether he even smelled of alcohol."

The court reversed the lower court decisions. A copy of the ruling is available in a 110k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Kansas v. Stevenson (Kansas Supreme Court, 3/31/2014)

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