Court restricts police searches of cars when there’s no warrant

If police search a vehicle during a traffic arrest without a warrant, they’d better have a good reason, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The issue centers on a minor drug case in Mesa County court that involved Grand Junction police officers searching the trunk of a car in August 2010 during a routine traffic stop.

In that case, police discovered a single prescription pill, Xanax, in the pocket of a 16-year-old unlicensed driver during a pat-down search.

The driver, who they described as being extremely nervous, told police he used to have a prescription for the anti-anxiety medication.

Still, the driver and two passengers in the car were arrested after officers also found a bottle of other prescription drugs in the trunk of the car, which is owned by Brittney Coates, who is facing charges of distributing a controlled substance and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

During a motions hearing, however, Judge David Lass, a retired Eagle County judge who is presiding over the case, ruled that the bottle couldn’t be used because police illegally obtained it.

The high court agreed, saying police had no probable cause to search the trunk.

“It is difficult to explain how the nervousness of an underaged driver, stopped while unlawfully possessing a prescription drug, and his claim to have had a prescription for that drug, could in any way strengthen the inference, much less elevate suspicion to a ‘fair probability,’ that more contraband would be found in the defendant’s vehicle,” Justice Nathan Coats wrote in the opinion.

Chief Deputy Dan Rubinstein, chief deputy with the Mesa County District Attorney, said prosecutors decided to appeal the judge’s suppression of the evidence because they believe the police acted properly in searching the entire vehicle.

Though Rubinstein played down the ruling as unimportant, Coates’ lawyer, Grand Junction attorney Leslie Castro, said how police acted in the case points to a greater problem with prosecutors and the police.

“I think this DA’s office particularly gives a lot of say-so to the police in this town,” Castro said. “It’s surprising to me that they would continue prosecuting the case with so little evidence.”


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