OKLAHOMA COURT CLARIFIES “REASONABLE” SEARCH

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has decided a case that clarifies when a law enforcement officer can conduct a search without consent, where the initial contact did not involve suspicion of illegal activity.

Te Defendant was standing beside his motorcycle in the parking lot of an establishment that was closed. A Deputy Sheriff approached the Defendant, and asked him what he was doing. The Defendant replied he was “taking a break”. At that point, the Deputy asked to see the Defendant’s driver’s license and proof of insurance. The Defendant told the officer that he did not have insurance for the motorcycle.  The Deputy then impounded the motorcycle, as the compulsory insurance law allows.

When the Deputy asked the Defendant for consent to search the motorcycle saddlebags, the Defendant refused. The Deputy called for the assistance of the local police department. An officer with a drug sniffing dog was in the parking lot of the casino across the street, and responded within a couple of minutes. The dog “alerted” on the motorcycle bag. A search revealed a bag containing methamphetamine.

Initially, the District Court granted the Defendant’s Motion to Suppress the evidence, because the officer was without suspicion of illegal activity when he first approached the Defendant. The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed, saying that the role of law enforcement officers is not only to detect and prevent criminal activity, but also to assist people who may be in distress.

At the time the Deputy approached the Defendant, there were indications that the Defendant may be a motorist in need of assistance. Once contact was made, the Deputy was within his authority to ask for the Driver’s License and proof of insurance, as the motorcycle obviously was being operated on the public streets. Discovering that the motorcycle was not legal for public streets, due to lack of insurance, authorized the Deputy to arrest the Defendant, impound the motorcycle, or both. Officers are allowed to inventory impounded vehicles for the protection of the police, the public and the person arrested.

In this case, the “detention” was not lengthened beyond what was necessary to further the legitimate interests that led to the contact. The time from initial contact until the arrival of the drug dog was less than six minutes. As each of the officer’s actions was reasonable given the situation as it unfolded, the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the search was proper, and the evidence should be allowed.

Read the Decision here.

Find more information at the Oklahoma Law Website

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