Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Second District: Police Permitted to Peek Over Stall Door to Make Restroom Arrest

A suspected drug user was entitled to privacy when he entered a Wal-Mart bathroom stall, but police had grounds to peek in on him after determining he wasn’t using the space for its intended purpose, an Ohio appeals court ruled.

The Second District Court of Apppeals recently affirmed the decision of a Clark County Court of Common Pleas to reject a motion to suppress the stall search as part of an aggravated possession of drugs charge. When the motion was denied, Brian Trainer pleaded no-contest to the fifth degree felony, but appealed the decision on the search ruling to the Second District.

A Springfield Wal-Mart employee observed Trainer in the store talking with slurred speech and walking as if impaired. He reported Trainer to Springfield police, and told them when they arrived that Trainer had gone into the restroom and was last seen in the large stall at the end designed to accommodate persons with disabilities.

From outside the stall, Officer Roger Jenkins could see Trainer’s pants were on and that he was standing near the stall door with his back to the wall. Jenkins reported that to him it did not appear “that Trainer was using the stall for its intended purpose,” but rather from his vantage point it seemed that Trainer was placing objects on the metal toilet paper dispenser.

Jenkins then entered the adjacent stall, stood on the toilet and looked over the partition and saw a large spoon with yellowish powder and a syringe with liquid in it. He drew his firearm, forced his way into the stall, and arrested Trainer.

Trainer moved to suppress the evidence at his trial arguing it was obtained through an unlawful search.

Writing for the Second District, Judge Mike Fain noted Trainer cited case law that ruled observations by police officers made from positions where they have not been expressly or implied to be invited are unlawful intrusions. He wrote the court agreed that when Jenkins stepped on the toilet and looked over the partition, he was in a position that violated the reasonable expectation of privacy of the person in the other stall. And when he did it, the observation became a search that required probable cause.

Having probable cause permits an officer to get a search warrant to carry out a search, however, when there are exigent circumstances, such as the possibility that the drugs could be flushed down the toilet, a warrant is not required to conduct a search, Judge Fain explained.

He concluded that Jenkins had the report of Trainer appearing under the influence by the employee, knew from his own training and experience that public restroom stalls are frequently used for heroin injections, and he observed Trainer standing near the wall leaning over the dispenser.

“These facts fall short of proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt, since there are plausible innocent explanations for all of them. Nevertheless, in their totality, they warranted a man reasonable caution in the belief that a drug offense had been or was being committed,” Judge Fain wrote. “Therefore, Officer Jenkins had probable cause for the search.”

Judges Jeffrey E. Froelich and Michael T. Hall concurred in the decision.

State v. Trainer, 2015-Ohio-2792
Criminal Appeal From: Clark County Common Pleas Court
Judgment Appealed From Is: Affirmed
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: July 10, 2015

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