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Court News Ohio

Appeals Court Throws Out Traffic Stop Convictions

Evidence obtained during a Canfield traffic stop should have been suppressed by the trial court, the Seventh District Court of Appeals ruled in a recent case. As a result, convictions for OVI, possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of marijuana were reversed.

The unanimous decision authored by Judge Gene Donofrio called the February 7, 2011 traffic stop of Curtis Elliott by Canfield Police “clearly reasonable” but labeled the search for evidence of a crime a “fishing expedition.”

Sgt. Scott Bennett stopped Elliott because of a missing headlight. Sgt. Bennett observed Elliott as having dilated pupils, being disoriented and displaying lethargy, although he did not smell alcohol or marijuana. Elliott denied Sgt. Bennett permission to search the car. Sgt. Bennett called for a K-9 unit to search the car but was told more than a half-hour later that the K-9 unit was not coming. Sgt. Bennett then administered field sobriety tests.

Elliott argued that police lacked reasonable suspicion to prolong the traffic stop beyond the time necessary to issue a citation. The Seventh District agreed.

“It was not until Sgt. Bennett was informed that the canine unit was not coming that he asked appellant to submit to the field sobriety tests,” Judge Donofrio wrote. “Thus, it seems that once Sgt. Bennett learned that he would not be able to search appellant’s car with a canine sniff, he decided to take a different approach. Had Sgt. Bennett truly suspected that appellant was under the influence, he could have used the half-hour in the parking lot to conduct the field sobriety tests. He also had plenty of time to write the traffic citation for the broken taillight. Yet he did nothing but detain appellant during this time.”

Judge Donofrio cited sections of the U.S. and Ohio Constitutions that prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures and a court case (State v. Robinette, 80 Ohio St.3d 234, 685 N.E.2d 762 (1997)) that concluded a “continued detention to conduct a search constitutes an illegal seizure.”

“Because the prolonged stop in this case was unreasonable, the trial court should have sustained appellant’s motion to suppress all evidence obtained as a result of the stop,” he wrote.

Judges Mary DeGenaro and Cheryl L. Waite concurred in the July 11 opinion. Elliott’s conviction for the missing headlight violation was affirmed. The case was sent back to trial court for further proceedings.

State v. Elliott, 2012-Ohio-3350
Criminal Appeal From: Mahoning County Area Court #5
Judgment Appealed From Is: Reversed and Remanded in part, Affirmed in part
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: July 11, 2012