Court: Police search lawful in drug arrest
Police, when working late at night in areas known for high-volume drug dealing, can lawfully search a vehicle upon observing an occupant of that vehicle retrieving suspected drugs from it, the Colorado Supreme Court held last week.
Reversing a decision by Mesa County Chief Judge David Bottger, the state’s high court said last week Grand Junction police last year conducted a lawful search of a man’s vehicle, which was after officers allegedly saw the man reach inside it and grab a cheeseburger wrapper holding Oxycontin pills.
The court said Bottger misapplied a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Arizona vs. Gant, which held the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires police to demonstrate a continuing threat to public safety by an arrestee, or a need to collect additional evidence of a suspected crime, to justify a search of a vehicle or home without a warrant.
Shaun Crum, 44, was jailed on several drug-related charges by Grand Junction officers, who were on patrol before midnight on Aug. 16, 2012, in the 400 block of Fourth Avenue.
Crum first explained he was parked there because of “car trouble,” but later explained he and his passenger were just “hanging out.”
Officers saw Crum pick up a cheeseburger wrapper from inside the vehicle and walk away, an arrest affidavit said. When they learned Crum had an outstanding arrest warrant for failure to appear, the officers observed Crum throwing the wrapper on the ground and stomping on it, grinding it into the ground.
Two pills were observed in the wrapper.
Officers arrested Crum and then searched the vehicle, finding bags of suspected methamphetamine, marijuana and hash, in addition to several empty bags and a digital scale, consistent with distribution of drugs.
While prosecutors argued the additional search of the vehicle was lawful based on the Gant decision, Bottger disagreed and ultimately threw out the additional evidence seized. Bottger said while there was probable cause to arrest Crum for possession of a controlled substance, the vehicle search was illegal.
“It’s not inconceivable that somebody would possess two pills and two pills only,” Bottger wrote in his order. “It was reasonable to believe that ... he had gotten that contraband from inside the vehicle, but no reason to believe that there was anything else illegal in there.”
The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling the circumstances and officers’ observations established a “reasonable suspicion” there might have been more evidence of drug possession in the vehicle.
An officer testified the area where it happened, a commercial zone in lower downtown Grand Junction, is known for “high levels of drug activity.”