This time of year, many state legislatures have wrapped up their yearly bills, but courts never stop. Here are just some of the cases we have been tracking.
The Colorado Supreme Court recently declared that an alert by a drug-sniffing police dog to detect marijuana and other drugs no longer provides probable cause for a search. In Colorado v. McKnight, the court also ruled that deploying such a dog counts as a search that must be preceded by probable cause or a court-authorized warrant. Since 2012, Colorado legalized an ounce or less of recreational marijuana for adults 21 or older. This ruling may have further implications for other states that have legalized pot.
US District Judge Richard W. Story denied a motion to dismiss a lawsuit that challenged the use of traffic tickets and other fines to generate revenue through zealous policing in Doraville, Georgia. The judge wrote in his ruling, “Here, the City is engaged in a broad pattern of allegedly unconstitutional behavior that is ongoing. As a result of that practice, the City’s officers write dozens of tickets for ordinance and statutory violations on a daily basis.” The four plaintiffs maintain that by putting this revenue into its annual budget, Doraville creates an excessive incentive for public officials to police for profit instead of protecting the health and safety of residents. The city books between 17 and 30 percent of its overall revenue from fines and fees by police and code inspectors. In 2015 the revenue was over $3 million with 15,000 cases in a town that has a population of only 10,540.
In a unanimous 5-0 March decision, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that police officers are not required to document a basis for a traffic stop. In October 2016, Zachariah Marshall was stopped by police ostensibly for speeding but was arrested instead for a DUI. The defense asked that the case be thrown out since the officer lacked reasonable suspicion for stopping him in the first place since Marshall’s driving did not signal impairment and speeding was not cited. The court, however, stated that the reasonable suspicion standard does not mandate documentation, only that an officer have “a particularized and objective basis for suspecting” that the driver violated the law.
Berkshire County, Massachusetts Judge Jennifer Tyne ruled that statements made by a Lanesborough police officer in an alleged drug case would not be admissible. Officer Brennan Polidoro received drug-recognition certification in 2014 and is the county’s only Drug Recognition Expert. Judge Tyne deemed that Polidoro’s evaluations and his training were not based on science and his conclusions were unreliable. Courts recognize a blood alcohol test standard for giving an accurate reflection of intoxication, but no such recognizable standards exist for marijuana or other drugs.
Due to a jurisdictional technicality, a federal lawsuit brought against the state of Rhode Island for truck-only tolls was thrown out of court. US District Judge William Smith dismissed the lawsuit from the American Trucking Associations (ATA) because the truck-only tolls are really a form of targeted tax and the case should be heard in state, not federal court. The ATA contends that the tolls are a violation of the Commerce Clause and discriminates against out-of-state truckers. Rhode Island installed the controversial program to raise funds for roads and currently has only two truck-only toll gantries in operation. Beginning in July, however, the state will open a third gantry and plan to open one gantry a month until April 2020.
The Texas Court of Appeals overturned a county judge’s interpretation of the state’s littering law that held tossing a lit cigarette out of the car could only be a crime if it happened to start a fire. A motorist was stopped after he dropped a lit cigarette to the ground and was later booked on a DUI. The three-judge panel said the traffic stop was justified because the motorist violated the state’s littering law even if the cigarette did not start a fire.
The US Supreme Court heard testimony in April about a Wisconsin law that allows law enforcement to draw blood without a warrant from unconscious drivers who are suspected of being intoxicated. Close to half of all states have similar laws, which claim that by choosing to drive, motorists consent to breath, blood or urine tests if police suspect them of drunk driving or driving under the influence of drugs. Lawyers for the driver who was subjected to a blood draw while unconscious say that the WI law violates the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. The case is Mitchell v. Wisconsin, 18-6210.
In another Wisconsin case, the State Supreme Court upheld that police can ask questions about guns and gun permits during a traffic stop. In the Milwaukee case of Wisconsin v. Wright, a police officer asked motorist, John Patrick Wright, in a 2016 traffic stop, whether he had a gun in the car and a concealed carry permit. Wright answered that he did have a gun in his glove compartment but did not yet have his permit since he just finished the class required for the permit. Wright was then arrested. Two courts rejected the questioning about guns saying it was a Fourth Amendment violation to extend a stop to inquire about issues unrelated to the initial reason for the traffic stop (a broken headlight). The high court stated that the officer asking the question about the gun and the gun permit took little time to ask and was thus de minimis, virtually incapable of any measurement, which then did not violate the Fourth Amendment.