In Surprise Ruling, Court Says Police Can’t Use Evidence from an Illegal Traffic Stop

Posted November 29, 2011 in Criminal Law by Arthur Buono

Reported by Aaron Kase for Lawyers.com

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled this month that if the police have no probable cause to stop a driver, they can’t use anything they find in the car against you — even if you stupidly okayed the search.

       
  • Drivers may refuse to let police officers to search their vehicles after a traffic stop
  • Cops can’t look into glove box, trunk or closed container in the car without probable cause
  • Drug convictions overturned for lack of probable cause

 

The Wilkes-Barre police received a very specific tip in January 2008: To look out for a “van being operated by a white female with red hair and a black male passenger with a yellow Tweety Bird air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror that had traveled from Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia for the purposes of transporting . . . marijuana and cocaine back to Wilkes-Barre for resale.”

 

Police Officer Thomas Kaluzny spotted the van on a highway and observed it exiting to Wilkes-Barre without using a turn signal. He continued to follow, and claimed to observe suspicious behavior in the form of a second black man in the back seat ducking his head and moving around the seat as well as “a lot of movement from the front passenger.”

Kaluzny pulled the van over, asked for and received permission from driver Sandra Hutz to search the vehicle without explaining why he had stopped her. On searching the van, Kaluzny found 12 grams of cocaine, 20 grams of marijuana and 3 grams of PCP. Hutz as well as passengers Troy Corley and Darryl Taylor were arrested on the spot.

Hutz pleaded guilty. However, the two men fought the drug charges, were found guilty and were sentence to prison — Corley for 84 to 168 months, and Taylor for 48 to 96 months. They both appealed and last year the Pennsylvania Superior Court overturned their convictions in separate rulings. The Supreme Court ruling this month affirmed the Superior Court’s decision, and prosecutors said they will no longer pursue charges.

Officers Lacked Probable Cause To Stop Vehicle

The court ruled that anonymous tips are not sufficient evidence for police to stop a vehicle:

  • Unless the tip contains specific information about the suspect’s future actions that could not be ordinarily predicted about a driver carrying out day-to-day affairs. Though the tip described the van in question down to the Tweety Bird hanging from the mirror, it wasn’t sufficient for reasonable cause because Hutz lives in Wilkes-Barre and could reasonably be expected to travel home whether or not engaged in any criminal activity.
  • Nor was the turn signal violation sufficient cause because Kaluzny had already called for backup before he witnessed the vehicle exiting the highway. “In short, the traffic violation played no actual role in the decision of Officer Kaluzny to stop and detain the Hutz vehicle that night,” the judges ruled.

The court didn’t comment on the nature of the drug search, because they already determined the stop itself was unwarranted.

 

When Can a Police Officer Search Your Vehicle?

The ruling was surprising to some observers, because traffic stops are frequently used by police as precursors to drug possession charges. But reasonable cause laws can be nuanced, says Philadelphia attorney David Crosson of Crosson Law Office.

“It’s a sketchy little area,” he says. In general, Crosson says he would advise motorists to refuse permission for police to search their vehicles in the first place. “My general advice is to refuse it,” he says. “Refuse the search and tell the cop that you want your attorney. Don’t make any sudden movements and be polite. Make the cops find probable cause.”

In general, drivers have the right to refuse permission to police officers to search their vehicles after a traffic stop. “A cop would only have the right to search the car if there’s something in plain sight or an officer has a suspicion that a criminal act is occurring. For example, smoke coming out of an ashtray that smells of marijuana, or something in plain sight like a weapon or some drugs,” Crosson says.

 

If officers initiate a search based on reasonable suspicion, they still are not permitted to look into closed or locked areas like a glove box, trunk or closed container within the car without a specific probable cause. Open, out of sight areas such as under a mat or a seat, however, are fair game. Police also have the right to peer into open bags or purses, but cannot rummage through them without consent or probable cause.

Officers do generally have the option to bring in a drug dog at their discretion, which can provide probable cause to search both the vehicle and locked areas within the vehicle if it smells contraband.

Hutz made it easy for the officer to find the drugs by giving him the go-ahead to search her van.

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