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An Unconstitutional Search? A Warren County Case Makes Its Way Up To The Ohio Supreme Court

This week, the Ohio Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in State of Ohio v. Jamie Banks-Harvey. The issue before the court is whether the police may search an individual's purse after the individual is arrested and placed in a cruiser but before the individual is transported to jail.

Facts/Procedure

In this case, Jamie Banks-Harvey ("Banks-Harvey") was driving with two passenger and was pulled over by a trooper for speeding. Soon after, the trooper learned she had a warrant for her arrest for heroin possession in another county. The trooper patted her down and placed her in the back of his cruiser. While confirming whether the warrant was active, the trooper returned to the car and spoke to the two passengers. The trooper later testified that during this conversation with the two passengers, he saw a gel cap on the floorboard he believed to be heroin. 

Once the trooper confirmed her warrant was active, he handcuffed and arrested Banks-Harvey. The trooper then learned one of the passengers had an active warrant and therefore arrested and placed her in the back of his cruiser too. The other passenger, Banks-Harvey's boyfriend, had a valid license and no active warrants. During the two arrests another officer arrived on the scene.

After the arrests, the trooper returned to the car, retrieved Banks-Harvey's purse from the car and searched it. The trooper asked Banks-Harvey's boyfriend if he could search the car but he refused. The trooper never asked Banks-Harvey if he could search her purse and she never gave the trooper permission to do so.

Despite having no permission to do so, the trooper searched through Banks-Harvey's purse and found cocaine and heroin. After the trooper found the drugs, the other officer told the trooper he had seen a gel cap on the passenger side floor. Next, the other officer searched the car and found several gel caps and a needle.

Banks-Harvey filed a motion to suppress the drugs that were obtained through an unconstitutional search. The trial court denied her motion, finding that while the trooper did not have probable cause to search the car or the purse, the evidence would have been found anyway pursuant to a legal search because the other officer had actually observed the gel capsule.

The 12th District Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court the evidence should have been admitted; however, for a different reason. The officer's removal and search of the purse from the car was conducted in accordance with standard Ohio State Highway Patrol procedures according to the 12th District. The decision can be read here: https://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/12/2016/2016-Ohio-2894.pdf

Law

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution protect we the people from unreasonable searches and seizures. Further, the United States Supreme Court in Arizona v. Gant clearly stated the police may search a vehicle while a recent occupant is being arrested only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of a crime. Lastly, concerning inventory searches, the United States Supreme Court has held routine practices of securing and inventorying the contents of an automobile serves three distinct needs: (1) to protect the owner's property while in police custody; (2) to protect the police against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property; and (3) to protect the police against potential danger.

Arguments

It is anticipated the State of Ohio will argue the Ohio State Highway Patrol's standard policy states the personal property of an arrestee accompanies the arrestee to jail. Therefore, the property is fair game for an inventory search.

The defense on the other hand will likely argue the true reason for the search was to discover contraband-not to protect the contents of the purse or to avoid false claims of lost or stolen property. Thus, there was no good reason to conduct an inventory search of the purse. Moreover, the defense will likely argue the car was never impounded and therefore, an inventory search cannot be conducted or considered reasonable under these circumstances.

Conclusion

This case has huge implications for criminal law in Ohio. If the Ohio Supreme Court agrees with the 12th District Court of Appeals, police agencies could grossly expand their power to search by implementing written search policies and procedures that are unreasonable. But that is precisely what the State cannot do-engage in unreasonable searches and seizures. Simply put, policies adopted by police agencies cannot legitimize unconstitutional police power.

The experienced criminal defense attorneys at Rittgers & Rittgers handle cases where law enforcement officers search or seize property unconstitutionally. If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime, set up your free consultation today by calling (513)-932-2115. 

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