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Motor Vehicle Searches
Mar 11, 2019

Motor Vehicle Searches

By:  Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh

Many things go through a Police Officer’s mind when conducting a traffic stop. Who is inside the vehicle? What will their reaction be when approached? Who and what else is in the vehicle? An officer is highly trained to detect certain things which could be cause for alarm.

What happens if a traffic stop leads to an officer searching a vehicle? Recently, a ruling by Ohio’s Ninth District Court of Appeals dealt with an officer searching a vehicle following a traffic stop. In December of 2013, Silver Lake Ohio police initiated a traffic stop on a vehicle driven by David Lindow, who was operating the vehicle with a suspended license. While searching the vehicle, police discovered marijuana in a locked toolbox fixed to the bed of Mr. Lindow’s truck. Mr. Lindow was charged with driving under suspension, possession of marijuana, and trafficking in marijuana.

Prior to trial in Summit County Common Pleas Court, Mr. Lindow filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in the locked box, as well as statements he made to police. The court held a hearing and denied Mr. Lindow’s motion. The trial court judge concluded the officers did not need a warrant to lawfully unlock the toolbox since the officer testified that he smelled the odor of marijuana emanating from the toolbox. Mr. Lindow appealed, and the appellate court reversed the judge’s decision.

The Ninth District Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court’s finding, concluding the testimony showed the officer actually smelled the marijuana either during or after unlocking the toolbox, but not before. As such, the appellate court held that the trial court erred in denying Lindow’s motion to suppress. If the officer had testified that he smelled the marijuana prior to opening the locked toolbox, no warrant would have been needed and the appeal would have been overruled.  However, because the appellate court concluded that the officer did not smell the marijuana until after opening the locked box, a warrant was required.  On remand, the evidence was suppressed and the charges relating to the marijuana had to be dismissed.

Here are some things to remember when conducting a search of a vehicle:

  • Officers cannot search a vehicle, incident to arrest, unless: the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the vehicle, or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense that led to the arrest. (State v. Leak, 2016-Ohio-154),
  • A routine inventory search of a lawfully impounded automobile is reasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when performed pursuant to standard police practice, and when the evidence does not demonstrate that the procedure involved is merely a pretext for an evidentiary search of the impounded automobile. State v. Robinson, 58 Ohio St.2d 478, 480 (1979).
  • An Officer may search a vehicle, its occupants, and the occupants’ purses/backpacks, if the officer detects the smell of marijuana. The Supreme Court of Ohio has held that the smell of marijuana, as detected by a person who is qualified to recognize the odor, is sufficient to establish probable cause without any need for additional factors to corroborate suspicion of the presence of marijuana.   State v. Moore, 90 Ohio St.3d 47 (2009).

In light of this, it is important to know and articulate the specific basis for any search that is conducted during the course of a traffic stop.

Ohio Patrolmen's Benevolent Association
10147 Royalton Rd
Cleveland, OH 44133

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