Recent Court Decisions

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Pertaining to Vehicle Searches During Motor Vehicle Stops

Officers are well served in remaining topical about decisions from courts pertaining to vehicle stops and searches. Recently, two decisions pertaining to vehicle searches were handed down at the Circuit Court level. Although an officer may work outside of the jurisdiction of the court rendering the decision, the decisions are still helpful in gauging how the court views different searches.

US v Wallen was decided October 11, 2004 by the 5th Circuit Court. A police officer in Texas had conducted a motor vehicle stop for speeding. Upon approaching the vehicle the officer noted two rifles on the passenger side of the truck. The vehicle operator advised his credentials were in a wallet on the passenger side of the truck and had to exit the vehicle and walk around to the other side. The officer noted the subject was barefoot.

As the operator moved items to locate his wallet, the officer observed a pistol in plain view. He ordered the operator away from the vehicle and directed him to stand at the rear of the truck.

The officer conducted a background check by radio. Twice during this process the operator attempted to access the truck's interior and had to be ordered to remain at the rear of the truck. Upon being advised of an outstanding warrant from another county, the vehicle operator was handcuffed and placed in the rear of the patrol unit. At this time, the defendant was advised he was only being temporarily detained pending a check on the validity of the warrant.

The officer undertook a search of the truck's interior. This search revealed an unregistered short barrel rifle and an unregistered fully automatic rifle. During the course of this search, the officer was advised the warrant could not be executed from his jurisdiction. The defendant was placed under arrest on the weapons charges. Subsequent investigation revealed an unregistered silencer.

At the trial court level the evidence (weapons) was suppressed. The trial court reasoned the search was unnecessary because the defendant was handcuffed and secured, and therefore was not dangerous.

Using the logic from Terry v Ohio (1968), the Circuit Court found the Texas officer had "an articulable and objectively reasonable belief that the suspect is potentially dangerous." The court noted the suspect was "suspiciously barefoot" at night and had twice attempted to gain access to the truck's interior over the order's of the officer. …