Drug possession cases hinge on evidence of the drugs themselves. Under the exclusionary rule, if drug evidence resulted from an unlawful search or seizure, it must be excluded. It is therefore common in drug cases for the defendant to move for the evidence to be suppressed on the ground it resulted from an unlawful search or seizure. In a recent unpublished case, a Washington appeals court considered whether evidence of drugs in a vehicle should have been suppressed.
The defendant pulled his vehicle over to the side of the road after a police sergeant pulled behind him. When the sergeant turned around and drove back toward him, the defendant moved forward, passing the sergeant. The sergeant turned around again. The defendant again pulled over and put on his flashers. The sergeant pulled over behind him.
The defendant told the sergeant he thought he had a flat, but the sergeant did not think the tire looked flat. The sergeant then asked the defendant if he had a driver’s license, and the defendant showed him a Colorado license. The sergeant thought the defendant seemed unsure and nervous when asked if the license was valid, so he asked if it was suspended. The defendant said it could be suspended because of unpaid child support. A dispatcher confirmed that it was suspended in Washington and Colorado.
The sergeant asked the defendant if the passenger had a valid license and could drive the vehicle. When the defendant opened the door to speak to the passenger, the sergeant saw a white substance on the floor. That substance was later tested and found to be methamphetamine.
The defendant was charged with possession of a controlled substance, methamphetamine. He moved to suppress the methamphetamine, arguing he had been unlawfully seized before the drugs were found. The court denied the motion, finding the defendant had not been improperly seized. The jury found the defendant guilty, and he appealed.
The defendant argued that the sergeant did not have a reasonable suspicion to ask for his license and retain it. Both the Washington Constitution and the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibit warrantless searches and seizures, unless an exception applies. Evidence obtained pursuant to an unlawful seizure is suppressed under the exclusionary rule.
There is a seizure of a person if a reasonable person would have believed he was not free to leave under all of the circumstances surrounding the incident. There is not necessarily a seizure just because an officer is asking questions or requesting identification. An encounter remains consensual until the police convey that the individual must comply with their requests.
The appeals court found that the request for the license was not a seizure. First, the sergeant just asked if the defendant had a license, and the defendant handed his license over. There was no evidence that the sergeant coerced the defendant to give him the license or that his tone of voice or language indicated that compliance might be compelled.
The defendant also argued that the officer’s holding of the license while he contacted dispatch constituted an unlawful seizure. The appeals court considered previous cases. In those cases in which an unlawful seizure had been found to exist, the officer had moved out of the defendant’s presence with the driver’s license. Here, the encounter did not become an unlawful seizure because the sergeant remained next to the defendant when he called in to dispatch.
Furthermore, the appeals court found that even if there was a seizure, it was justified because the defendant told the officer the license may have been suspended. The appeals court found that a report of a suspended license constitutes a reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct that is sufficient to justify a seizure.
The appeals court found that the trial court’s findings supported its determination that there was no improper seizure that would require the suppression of the methamphetamine evidence. The court did not err in denying the motion to suppress.
Although the defendant was not successful in suppressing the evidence, this case illustrates how fact-specific the determination of whether a seizure occurred can be. If the sergeant had gone back to his vehicle or even just stepped away from the defendant, the result would likely have been different. The Seattle drug crime attorneys at Blair & Kim, PLLC, are experienced in drug cases. We can aggressively defend your rights. Call us at (206) 622-6562 or contact us online.
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Image: FreeImages.com / Geoffrey LEBREC