Scope of Washington Investigative Stop Can Be Expanded

Both the U.S. and Washington Constitutions prohibit warrantless seizures, unless the state can show an exception applies.  Washington criminal defense attorneys know that one such exception is the Terry stop.  An officer may briefly detain an individual if he or she has a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity based on specific and articulable facts the officer knows at the time of the stop.  If the activity is consistent with criminal activity, it may justify a brief detention, even if it is also consistent with activity that is not criminal.

Legal News GavelA Washington defendant recently challenged her convictions on the ground that the stop was unlawful.  After being notified of unauthorized vehicles in his driveway, a man returned home to find he had been burglarized.  He reported unauthorized vehicles in his driveway, and two men were arrested.  He subsequently found another vehicle on the private road to his house and again called the police.  The deputy who responded stopped a vehicle that appeared to be leaving the remote road.  The deputy stated the vehicle was “loaded with goods,” so he asked the driver to exit the vehicle.  He handcuffed her and put her in the back of his vehicle.

The property owner identified some fluorescent light bulbs in the vehicle as belonging to him.  When asked why she was there, the defendant told the deputy she needed to urinate.  She was arrested, and officers found a baggie in her jacket that contained a substance that tested positive for methamphetamine.  She was charged with burglary in the second degree and possession of a controlled substance—methamphetamine.

The defendant moved to suppress all of the evidence on the grounds the initial detention and subsequent arrest were illegal because they lacked probable cause.  The trial court found there was a traffic stop and subsequent seizure.  It further found the deputy had the right to stop, detain, and question the defendant.  The defendant was in a vehicle matching the description given by the property owner, so the deputy had a reasonable and articulable suspicion she had been involved in criminal activity.

The defendant was convicted of possession of a controlled substance—methamphetamine.   She appealed, arguing the court erred in admitting the evidence because the deputy seized her without a reasonable suspicion.

The appeals court found the stop was valid based on the totality of the circumstances.  The deputy had been sent to the property because of the call from the property owner.  The property owner had described a yellow SUV that was parked on the private road to his home.  The deputy had been told the home had been burglarized several times.  The defendant seemed to be leaving a remote road leading to the property in a yellow SUV that was “loaded with goods.”  The deputy was concerned the people in the vehicle were involved in the burglaries.  The appeals court found he had a reasonable suspicion that criminal conduct had occurred or was about to occur.  The appeals court therefore found the initial stop was lawful.

The defendant argued that the detention was not a traffic stop and that the deputy exceeded the scope of a traffic stop by asking her to exit her vehicle and putting her into the patrol car.  The appeals court found, however, that there was substantial evidence that there had been a traffic stop.  The appeals court noted that an officer has the authority during a traffic stop to order a suspect to provide identification and to get out of and away from the vehicle.  The scope of a traffic stop may be expanded if the officer finds evidence of other crimes or observes suspicious circumstances.

The appeals court found that the large number of goods in the vehicle heightened the deputy’s suspicion that the defendant was involved in a burglary.  The court found he handcuffed her and put her in his car so that he could investigate.  The property owner identified fluorescent light bulbs that he said belonged to him.  The defendant told the deputy she was in the area to urinate, but he saw no signs of urine.  All of this information provided justification to expand the scope of the stop.  He handcuffed her and put her in his car while he investigated.  The appeals court found the deputy had not exceeded the scope of the stop in doing so.

He arrested her and discovered the methamphetamine in a search incident to arrest.  Since the appeals court found the initial stop was lawful, it also found the evidence was discovered in a search incident to arrest.

The appeals court affirmed.

This case shows how a Terry stop may be expanded. If you are facing drug charges, an experienced Washington criminal defense attorney can help you defend your rights.   Contact Blair & Kim, PLLC by phone at (206) 622-6562 or through our website to discuss your case.

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