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Defense Wins a Vehicle Search and Seizure Case

In the recent search and seizure case of State v. Donaldson, M2010-0069-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 9-15-2011), the State of Tennessee, appealing a trial court ruling excluding evidence, asserted that a police officer has unrestricted authority to order a motorist to exit a vehicle at any point during a valid traffic stop. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals disagrees.

The Court agreed that an officer may order a motorist to exit the vehicle during a valid traffic stop, when doing so for officer safety. Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106 (1977). But the Court also noted that a traffic detention should not last longer than necessary for the purpose of the stop. Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491 (1983).

In the Donaldson case, the Defendant was stopped for an improper right turn at a red light and for failing to signal the turn. The Defendant remained inside his vehicle while the police officer checked the Defendant's license and registration and wrote a traffic citation. The officer then returned to the Defendant's vehicle to give him back his license and registration and have him sign the citation. But the officer decided at that point he also wanted to observe the Defendant further. So he asked him to get out of the vehicle to sign the citation. The police officer testified at the suppression hearing that it was his usual practice to do this. Prior to this, he had not observed anything specifically suspicious about the Defendant.

As the Defendant exited the vehicle, the officer noticed a bag of white powder in the driver's side floor board. The Defendant was subsequently arrested and charged with possession of cocaine (with intent to sell) in a school zone.

The trial court excluded the evidence and the State appealed that ruling. In upholding the ruling on appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals noted it was significant that the officer did not ask the motorist to exit the vehicle at the beginning of the stop, but only after he had properly checked the license and registration and issued the citation (which the Defendant had not yet signed). In the Court's view, the purpose of the stop had effectively concluded and the facts did not indicate that the motorist was asked to exit the vehicle for a safety issue. The officer's testimony was that he simply wanted to observe the Defendant's demeanor further. That's not a basis to extend the duration of the stop.

For more information on whether a particular search and seizure may be reasonable, contact and Hindman & Associates.

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