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Drug evidence from stop suppressed

Kelly Caplan//November 1, 2021

Drug evidence from stop suppressed

Kelly Caplan//November 1, 2021

A woman who was pulled over for improper window tinting, speeding and littering has succeeded in her bid to suppress drug evidence found by the police.

The officers had an objectively reasonable basis to make the traffic stop, but it was unreasonably prolonged to have a police canine do free air sniff around the vehicle, the court found.

Judge Paul A. Dryer said the important inquiry “is not how long the sniff took, but whether ‘conducting the sniff “prolongs” — i.e., adds time to — “the stop.”’”

In this case, Dryer said “conducting the sniff necessarily added time to the stop because no officers were attending to the underlying purpose of the stop while the sniff was taking place.”

The police “did not diligently pursue the basis of the stop for illegal window tinting and thus unlawfully prolonged the seizure of [the defendant] in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”

The decision from the 25th Circuit Court is Commonwealth v. Ramey (VLW 021-8-119).

Traffic stop

Skyline Drug Task Force investigators Hilliard and Rosemeier saw defendant Kirsten Ramey and a passenger pull into a gas station. Hilliard said it looked like Ramey’s passenger recognized him and Rosemeier. Rather than getting gas or going into the convenience store, Ramey drove away on the interstate.

Hilliard said the window tint on Ramey’s car looked too dark so he contacted Deputy Johnson of the Augusta County Sheriff’s Department for a tint meter. Johnson was the county’s canine officer, and Hilliard acknowledged that the real reason for reaching out to Johnson was to get a canine sniff of Ramey’s car for drugs.

Hilliard and Rosemeier followed Ramey and her passenger down the interstate. Hilliard testified that Ramey broke the 70 mph speed limit; he couldn’t remember how fast she was going, and didn’t know if his speedometer had been calibrated.

Rosemeier testified that Ramey’s passenger threw something out of the car’s window; his statement did not describe what he saw being thrown from the moving vehicle.

Hilliard stopped Ramey and Johnson arrived with his dog about 12 minutes later. The dog did a free air sniff and made a positive alert for the presence of drugs, which were found during a search of Ramey’s car.

Ramey moved to suppress.

Valid stop

Dryer said a reasonable officer — with no motivation to perform a drug investigation — had a justifiable reason for stopping Ramey for the illegal window tint, speeding and littering.

Since Hilliard couldn’t testify as to how fast Ramey was driving, Dryer said it was unlikely that a reasonable officer would do a stop for speeding if that were the only traffic violation he observed.

When combined with the other violations, though, “it would not be unreasonable for an officer to stop Ramey for those violations and also give a warning for speeding,” the judge said.

12-minute wait

Dryer looked to the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in United States v. Rodriguez to determine if Ramey’s 12-minute detention was “unjustifiably prolonged” to conduct the canine sniff.

The Rodriguez court said “a seizure justified only by a police-observed traffic violation … become[s] unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete th[e] mission of issuing a ticket for the violation.”

Dryer noted that the commonwealth provided “scant evidence” to explain the officers’ actions from when Ramey was stopped to the arrival of Johnson and the canine.

Hilliard “could not recall if he, or anybody else, ever actually began filling out a citation for littering despite the fact that he also testified that he had all the materials necessary to do so in his vehicle. Hilliard also never indicated that he informed Ramey or the passenger that he had stopped them for littering or inquired in any way as to what had been thrown out the window.”

In fact, the commonwealth said “this case is really about littering,” but admitted no citations were written for any of the alleged violations.

“If that is so, then detaining Ramey twelve minutes on the side of a busy interstate for the arrival of a canine officer, while the three investigators at the scene apparently took no steps towards the issuance of a ticket for littering, was entirely unjustified,” Dryer said.

Nor did the commonwealth offer evidence that any of the three officers on the scene were “diligently pursuing” issuing a speeding ticket to Ramey.

“The only evidence offered by the Commonwealth was that Hilliard ‘ran Ramey’s information,’” Dryer wrote. “Once Hilliard determined that Ramey had a valid operator’s license and had no outstanding warrants, he needed to either issue her a speeding citation or warning and end the stop.”

And while Hilliard and Rosemeier said they thought Ramey’s windows were too dark when she was first spotted at the gas station, they didn’t stop her then. Instead, they followed her on the interstate for about 10 to 15 miles before making the traffic stop and waiting for Johnson to arrive with the tint meter.

Further, the commonwealth acknowledged the police were actually waiting for Johnson and the canine to perform a free air sniff.

“The Commonwealth’s case could have been saved from the rigors of Rodriguez had, once Deputy Johnson arrived, another officer used the tint meter while Johnson conducted the canine sniff simultaneously,” Dryer pointed out.

He added that the commonwealth “offered no evidence that Deputy Johnson nor Investigator Hilliard or any of the now four law enforcement officers on the scene, at any point, attempted to measure Ramey’s window tint. Instead, when Deputy Johnson arrived on the scene any pretext regarding the stop’s underlying justification to investigate the illegal window tint was utterly abandoned. At this point, the stop was plainly a narcotics investigation.”

According to Rodriguez, dog sniffs “are not fairly characterized as part of the officer’s traffic mission” and a police stop that exceeds “the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made” is a Fourth Amendment violation.

“[W]hen Deputy Johnson arrived on the scene and conducted a free air sniff of Ramey’s vehicle while none of the other officers present took any steps towards pursuing the underlying mission of the stop, he necessarily prolonged the stop beyond the time needed to address the infraction,” Dryer concluded.

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