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Marijuana Evidence Thrown Out: Township Officer Lacked Authority to Make Traffic Stop on Interstate Highway

The Ohio Supreme Court recently decided a case asking whether a traffic stop based on probable cause but contrary to an Ohio statute rises to the level of a constitutional violation.  Full text of the case is here: State v. Brown, Slip Opinion No. 2015-Ohio-2438.

The Court found that a traffic stop for a minor misdemeanor made outside a police officer’s statutory jurisdiction or authority violates the guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures established by Article I, Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution.

The case is important because the Court found that the Ohio Constitution provides more expansive protections against unreasonable searches than the U.S. Constitution.

Township Officer Pulls Driver Over For Marked Lanes on Interstate Highway

A township patrol officer observed the passenger-side tires of a Chevy Impala momentarily cross the solid white fog line for about 100 feet.  The officer pulled her police vehicle alongside the Impala and observed that the driver was staring directly ahead and did not look over at her. The officer stopped him for marked lanes about two and one half miles from where the violation occurred. The officer walked her drug dog around the Impala, leading to the discovery of 120 oxycodone tablets and a baggie of marijuana.

The driver was charged with marked lanes and drug possession.

Should the Drug Evidence be Thrown Out if the Township Officer Didn’t Have Authority to Enforce Traffic Laws on the Highway?  Yes!

It was undisputed that the township officer at issue in this case did not have authority to stop a driver for a marked lane violation on an interstate highway. However, the officer did have probable cause to pull the car over – there was also no dispute that a marked lanes violation occurred.

So, at issue in the Ohio Supreme Court was whether a traffic stop made with probable cause but without statutory jurisdiction violates Ohio’s constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Police Officers Generally Cannot Make Warrantless Arrests Outside Their Jurisdiction

Generally, police officers do not have authority to make warrantless arrests outside their jurisdiction unless they are in hot pursuit of a suspected felon fleeing the jurisdiction.  Outside their jurisdictions, officers are by and large considered private citizens.  Rather, the Ohio General Assembly has extended the authority to enforce traffic laws – such as speeding, marked lanes, headlights, etc – on all state highways only to the Ohio State Highway Patrol.  

Local township police officers may only enforce traffic laws on portions of state highways that are within their city or township jurisdiction (with some statutory exceptions).  If a township officer makes an arrest on a portion of the highway not within their jurisdiction, the Ohio Supreme Court says this is a violation of the driver’s constitutional rights under Article I, Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution.

Ohio Constitution Provides Broader Protection than U.S. Constitution

The Ohio Supreme Court noted that the Ohio Constitution provides broader protections against search and seizure than the U.S. Constitution.  So, even if the arrest by a township officer would not violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – it nonetheless violates the rights set forth in Ohio’s Constitution.

Here, the state admitted that the officer violated R.C. 4513.39 by stopping the driver for a marked lane violation on the interstate – where the officer did not have authority.  Thus, the officer acted outside her authority and exercised law-enforcement powers not expressly granted to a township officer by the General Assembly.

The government’s interests in allowing an officer without statutory jurisdiction to make a traffic stop for a minor misdemeanor offense is minimal and is “outweighed by the intrusion upon the individual’s liberty and privacy that necessarily arises out of the stop.”

Drug Charges Dismissed Because Traffic Stop Unconstitutional

Accordingly, the traffic stop and the search and arrest in this case were unreasonable and violated Article I, Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution, and the marijuana and other evidence seized should have been suppressed.  All drug charges, then, will be dismissed.