What is a ‘reasonable search?’


Paul Pfeifer - Ohio Supreme Court



On the evening of March 16, 2011, a Lake Township patrol officer and canine handler – Kelly Clark – pulled from the median on Interstate 280 into the passing lane and observed the passenger-side tires of a Chevy Impala momentarily cross the solid white fog line for about 100 feet.

Clark pulled alongside the Impala and observed that the driver, Terence Brown, was staring directly ahead and didn’t look over at her. Clark decided to stop Brown for leaving the lane of travel about 2 ½ miles from where the violation occurred. However, the fact that Officer Clark lacked authority to stop a motorist for a marked lane violation on an interstate highway eventually gave rise to a case that came before us – the Ohio Supreme Court.

Brown had a suspended driver’s license and an active felony warrant in Michigan. The record wasn’t clear, however, about whether Officer Clark knew that about Brown as she walked her dog around the Impala. That search led to the discovery of 120 oxycodone tablets and a baggie of marijuana.

The state later indicted Brown for aggravated possession of drugs. He filed a motion to suppress, but the court denied it, finding that Officer Clark had probable cause to stop Brown for a marked lane violation. Brown subsequently pleaded no contest to aggravated possession of drugs, and the trial court sentenced him to a mandatory term of three years in prison.

When Brown appealed his conviction, he asserted that because Clark lacked authority to stop him for a marked lane violation on an interstate highway, the stop – and the subsequent arrest and search – violated his right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures that is guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution.

The court of appeals concluded that the stop did not violate the Fourth Amendment, because Clark had probable cause to believe Brown had committed a misdemeanor in her presence. However, the court held that the stop was unreasonable and violated the Ohio Constitution because the marked lane violation occurred outside Clark’s territorial jurisdiction and there were no extenuating circumstances that called for the township police officer to initiate the extraterritorial stop.

The court of appeals concluded that the trial court should have suppressed the drug evidence, and it reversed Brown’s conviction. After that, the state filed an appeal with us for a final review.

The state argued that the prohibitions against unreasonable searches and seizures in the United States and Ohio Constitutions are nearly identical and should be read in harmony. The state also urged us to hold that the Ohio Constitution affords no greater protection than that afforded by the United States Constitution.

Brown – through his attorney –contended that Officer Clark lacked legal authority to stop any motorist on an interstate highway for a marked lane violation. He also argued that the violation of the law in this case rose to a constitutional infringement, and therefore the proper remedy was for the court to exclude the drug evidence.

So the issue that was before us was whether a traffic stop made without legal jurisdiction or authority violates the protection against unreasonable searches and seizures afforded by the Ohio Constitution.

Over the course of many years, decisions by Ohio courts had established that police officers had no authority to make warrantless arrests outside their jurisdictions. And Ohio law precludes township police officers, who aren’t commissioned peace officers, from enforcing traffic laws on any state highway. Furthermore, commissioned peace officers serving a township with a population of 50,000 or less may not enforce traffic laws on state highways included in the interstate highway system.

In the past, our court has ruled that an arrest made in violation of a law limiting the police officer’s authority to make the arrest infringes on “the right of the people to be secure in their person, house, papers, and possessions, against unreasonable searches and seizures” as guaranteed by the Ohio Constitution.

In a 2003 case, we recognized that the warrentless arrest for a minor misdemeanor did not violate the Fourth Amendment, but we determined that the Ohio Constitution provides greater protection than the Fourth Amendment against warrentless arrests for minor misdemeanors

In reaching that conclusion, we reaffirmed the application of the balancing test that we had established in a case from 2000. That balancing test is meant to ascertain whether a search or seizure is reasonable by weighing the competing interests involved and considering the extent of the officer’s intrusion on an individual’s liberty and privacy against the need to promote legitimate governmental interests.

Because we have determined that the Ohio Constitution – “a document of independent force” – affords greater protection than the Fourth Amendment against searches and seizures conducted by law enforcement who lack authority to make an arrest, a traffic stop for a minor misdemeanor made by a township police officer without authority to do so violates the Ohio Constitution.

In Brown’s case, the state admitted that Officer Clark violated the law by stopping Brown for a marked lane violation on Interstate 280. Thus, Clark acted outside her authority and exercised law-enforcement powers not expressly granted to a township officer by the legislature.

The government’s interest in permitting an officer without authority to make a traffic stop for a minor misdemeanor in these circumstances is minimal and is outweighed by the intrusion upon an individual’s liberty and privacy that necessarily arise out of the stop. Accordingly, the traffic stop and the ensuing search and arrest in Brown’s case were unreasonable and violated the Ohio Constitution. The evidence seized as a result should have been suppressed.

The court of appeals correctly determined that the township police officer lacked authority to enforce a lane violation on an interstate and that the traffic stop and ensuing search were unreasonable. It properly ordered suppression of the evidence obtained from that search.

Therefore – by a 5-2 vote – we affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The case referred to is: State v. Brown, 143 Ohio St.3d 444, 2015-Ohio-2438. Case No. 2014-0104. Decided June 23, 2015. Majority opinion written by Justice Terrence O’Donnell.

Paul Pfeifer is a justice on the Ohio Supreme Court.

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Paul Pfeifer

Ohio Supreme Court

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