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legal basis to expand search

In State v. Schmidt, a police officer was patrolling the area of a known drug house. The officer noticed Schmidt’s vehicle parked at the house and knew Schmidt did not have a valid driver’s license. The officer waited for Schmidt to leave the house and initiated a traffic stop. The officer then peppered Schmidt with questions about whether she was using drugs and if he would find anything illegal in her car. Schmidt denied any wrongdoing besides not having a valid license. The officer returned to his squad car to write Schmidt a citation for driving after revocation. He also called in for a canine unit to come perform a dog sniff around Schmidt’s car.

Twenty-three minutes after the initial stop, the officer returned to Schmidt’s vehicle to inform her of the citation and eventual dog sniff. Approximately another twenty-two minutes passed before the canine unit arrived, which resulted in a search finding drug paraphernalia and two small bags of meth in a dental floss container.

Schmidt’s defense attorney did not challenge the basis for the initial traffic stop,[1] but rather moved to suppress the evidence found as an illegal expansion of the stop without reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity. The district court denied Schmidt’s motion to suppress. The district court reasoned that leaving a known drug house on its own was not a sufficient basis to expand the search, but the totality of the circumstances in Schmidt’s case passed the threshold. Besides leaving a known drug house, the district court considered Schmidt’s nervous behavior during the stop, her prior stay of adjudication on a drug charge, and a pending drug case.

The court of appeals rebuffed each of the district court’s reasons in its reversal. The court of appeals believed the officer’s suspicion to expand the search was based on a hunch and not reasonable suspicion.

The court relied on State v. Miller in concluding Schmidt’s location prior to the stop did not support the expansion of the search. The court wrote “speaking with and being in close proximity with others suspected of criminal activity, without more, may be insufficient . . . to reach the threshold of reasonable articulable suspicion.” Id. (quoting State v. Ingram). Moreover, in Schmidt’s case, she was not seen interacting with anyone at the known drug house that day. She was merely seen leaving the house.

In addressing Schmidt’s alleged nervous behavior during the stop, the court of appeals noted that there was not any evidence that Schmidt was under the influence of a controlled substance. The only evidence provided was that Schmidt smoked three cigarettes, used her phone incessantly, and kept looking back at the squad car. The court of appeals relied on State v. Burbach and State v. Wiegand – two cases with motorists exhibiting similarly mild nervous behavior during a traffic stop. Simple nervous behavior was not enough to reach reasonable suspicion.

Using Schmidt’s prior criminal history to support the expansion of the stop drew the court of appeals’ most striking rebuke. The court reasoned that allowing officers to use someone’s criminal history to support an expansion of a search “would effectively allow officers to seize convicted felons at any time and for any reason.” The officer stopped Schmidt for driving without a valid license not suspected drug activity. To expand the search and seizure beyond what was needed for the initial traffic citation, without additional suspicion, was unlawful.

Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense attorney in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. He was named a “Rising Star” by Super Lawyers; is a member of the National College of DUI / DWI Defense; and is a “Ten Best” DWI Attorney for Client Satisfaction in Minnesota. DWI lawyer St. Paul MN; Minnesota DWI Lawyer; and Criminal Defense Lawyers Minneapolis.

[1] Read about State v. Hegwood and the legal basis for DWI stops here; how long police can detain you without probable cause here; and our video about challenging DWIs here.

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