Calling it “a freewheeling investigation” prompted in part by the color of a motorist's skin, a state trooper's search of a vehicle on the Ohio Turnpike in 2014 should not have been permitted to be used as evidence, a federal appellate court ruled Friday.
The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Judge Jeffrey Helmick's denial of a motion to suppress filed by Tyrone Warfield in federal court in Toledo.
Warfield pleaded guilty last year to possession of 15 or more counterfeit and unauthorized access devices, after troopers found approximately 175 debit cards, credit cards, and gift cards in his vehicle after the traffic stop in question.
Chief Judge R. Guy Cole, Jr., wrote in an 11-page opinion that Warfield was pulled over in “a suspicionless traffic stop” based on legal driving. He said Trooper Adam Hartford pulled over Warfield for “a supposed marked lane violation, moved to suspicions of drunk driving, then to suspicions of trafficking in untaxed cigarettes, and then on to drugs. The charge Warfield pleaded guilty to was even further adrift: the possession of gift cards re-coded with stolen information.”
After finding Warfield had not been drinking, the trooper inquired about cartons of cigarettes he could see in the backseat. Then, even though Warfield had no prior convictions or arrest warrants, the trooper called in a drug dog, which then found no evidence of narcotics.
“The protections of the Fourth Amendment are not so weak as to give officers the power to over-police people of color under a broad definition of suspicious behavior,” Judge Cole wrote.
The appeals court concluded the initial stop was not supported by probable cause or reasonable suspicion, though the opinion went further stating that bringing in a drug-sniffing dog was “troubling” given the circumstances.
“The use of a drug dog – whose only function is to search for illegal drugs – makes this seem less like an investigation into untaxed cigarettes and more like a fishing expedition,” the opinion stated.
The appeals court ordered that his case be remanded to the federal court in Toledo.
Claire Curtis of the Office of the Federal Public Defender, who represented Warfield in his appeal, declined to comment Friday.
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