11/27/2018Montana Supreme Court: Messy Cars Are Not Suspicious
Montana Supreme Court rejects police officer claim that a messy former rental car was suspicious enough to require search for drugs.
There is nothing suspicious about driving a messy former rental car with a suitcase in the back seat, the Montana Supreme Court said earlier this month. The justices were unanimous in finding Montana Highway Patrolman Cody Smith made a serious mistake when he searched the 2013 Chrysler LX that Scott Dean Paramore and Johnathan Samual Wilson had been driving on US Highway 2 in Chinook on June 21, 2016. The officer's suspicions were first aroused when the pair in the Chrysler looked at him as they passed by his patrol car.
"It was strange -- a little out of place," Trooper Smith testified.
The Chrysler still had the rental car fleet bar code in the rear window, so the trooper ran the North Dakota plates and found the registration was expired. He ordered the car to pull over. The officer noted that Paramore and Wilson were nervous, and he did not believe the occupants' story that they were traveling back from Paramore's wedding. He was also suspicious that Paramore wanted to smoke a cigarette. Later in the stop, the officer found it suspicious that Wilson no longer appeared nervous. This was not normal, the patrolman insisted.
"Normal could be viewed in many different ways," Trooper Smith testified. "What you believe normal is just almost a baseline of what I see when I'm dealing with people on traffic stop, I guess, is the normal I'm interpreting normal."
Paramore had waited 23 minutes until he was finally handed a ticket for driving without proof of insurance on an expired registration. After being assured he was "good to go," Paramore was asked to wait longer so that the car could be searched. Paramore refused to consent. Now 45 minutes into the stop, the drug dog arrived and found marijuana. Wilson sought to suppress the drug evidence by arguing the search violated the Fourth Amendment. The high court agreed that it did because the officer lacked a legitimate reason to believe Wilson and Paramore had committed a crime.
"A messy vehicle, a nervous driver with an unlit cigarette, daylight use of a Montana highway, using a borrowed vehicle, and the fact that newlyweds aren't traveling together following their wedding does not amount to particularized suspicion," Chief Justice Mike McGrath wrote for the court. "Our review of Smith's indicators reveals only a generalized hunch and not an articulation of specific facts demonstrating criminal behavior."
The justices found that the traffic stop should have ended after the traffic ticket was written, and the evidence against Wilson was thrown out.
A copy of the ruling is available in a 200k PDF file at the source link below.