Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Fifth District: No Probable Cause for Stop of Dusty Rental Vehicle

Image of flashing lights on top of police car (Chalabala/iStock/Thinkstock)

Troopers didn't have probable cause that a driver committed traffic violation, an Ohio appeals court ruled.

Image of flashing lights on top of police car (Chalabala/iStock/Thinkstock)

Troopers didn't have probable cause that a driver committed traffic violation, an Ohio appeals court ruled.

Evidence found during the search of a vehicle stopped by law enforcement cannot be considered by a Licking County trial court, an Ohio appeals court has ruled.

The Fifth District Court of Appeals stated last week that Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers didn’t have probable cause to pull over a vehicle on major interstate highway for following too closely. The decision, which upheld the trial court’s ruling, rejected the state’s position that the stop was constitutional.

Officers Have Concerns About Vehicle
Two troopers were parked in their cruiser observing traffic on Nov. 3, 2015. Trooper Michael Wilson stated that he saw a vehicle drive by in which he couldn’t see any occupants, including a driver. Trooper Drew Untied noted that the vehicle’s plates showed it was a rental car, which he said often are used by criminals to evade seizure of their personal property. The officers also indicated the vehicle was dusty, showing fingerprints near the trunk.

The troopers followed the vehicle, and eventually stopped it for following too closely to other vehicles. Shaune Woods was driving, and another person was in the passenger seat. The troopers searched the vehicle and found drugs inside a space in the passenger seat. The complete traffic stop was recorded by a camera on the dashboard in the cruiser.

Trial Court Won’t Admit Evidence from Search
In September 2017, Woods asked the trial court to suppress the evidence found during the search. The court granted the motion in February 2018.

The Licking County prosecutor appealed to the Fifth District, arguing that the troopers’ stop of the vehicle didn’t violate the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Stop Required Probable Cause
Citing a 2000 appeals court decision in another district, Judge W. Scott Gwin explained that when police stop a motorist for a traffic violation, it is a non-investigatory traffic stop. For police to initiate a non-investigatory traffic stop, they must have probable cause, and a traffic violation is probable cause, the opinion stated.

Woods was cited for violating R.C. 4511.34, which states that a motor vehicle operator “shall not follow another vehicle … more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed … and the traffic upon and the condition of the highway.”

The trial court’s decision described the dashcam video as showing moderately heavy traffic that was traveling at reasonable speeds for the conditions and below the highway speed limits. Woods’ vehicle was traveling in the right lane, while the trooper drove in the left lane some distance behind Woods. As the cruiser continued along the highway, vehicles moved over to the right lane, and vehicles in that lane applied their brakes to let the cars into the lane and to allow appropriate spacing, the trial court noted.

“Why would the left lane drivers be merging right? Simple. There’s a cop car behind them, in the left lane,” the trial court decision stated. “[R]egardless of the reason, it caused right lane traffic to become more congested. As a result, vehicles braked to slow down and accommodate. That’s what the defendant did in this case. He did not violate R.C. 4511.34, by ‘following too closely.’”

Dashcam Video Was More Reliable
Deciding the troopers didn’t have probable cause that a traffic violation had occurred, the trial court determined the dashcam video was more reliable and accurate than the other evidence presented. While Untied testified that Woods took a long time to pull over after the officer activated his lights, the trial court found the video showed the driver came to a stop in a reasonable and timely manner.

In addition, no evidence, such as photographs or the dialogue recorded on video, backed the troopers’ contention that the car’s occupants had hidden from view while driving to avoid detection, the trial court noted.

The trial court also concluded that the video didn’t support the troopers’ concerns about the dusty rental vehicle.

“After all, it was an early November evening in Ohio. Who knows what the weather conditions had been like the week, days, or even hours before the stop. It’s Ohio. The point is weather can change quickly here. If that's the threshold by which traffic stops are made, then we’re all in jeopardy. And if it was dirty, so what? Having a dusty vehicle with fingerprints on the hatch back or tailgate, is not evidence of a traffic violation or reason to believe a crime is being committed.”

The Fifth District determined that the record included “competent, credible evidence” to support the trial court’s ruling that Woods committed no traffic violation, and that the troopers had no probable cause to pull over the vehicle.

“[T]he trial court properly granted Woods’ motion to suppress,” Judge Gwin concluded.

Judges Earle E. Wise Jr. and John W. Wise joined the opinion.

State v. Woods, 2018-Ohio-3379.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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