A police officer noticed a Pontiac Grand Prix swerving inside its lane on I-75.   It was never speeding and it never went outside of the lane markers, but it weaved almost continuously for three miles.  The officer pulled the vehicle over, suspecting intoxication.  Defendant was the passenger and another man was the driver.  The officer asked the driver for his license and registration, but he produced only a Michigan ID card and a rental agreement for the car that did not list the driver or Defendant as the authorized driver.  The officer asked the driver to exit the vehicle and they walked behind the car for questioning.  After he walked around the car, the officer noticed a white pharmacy bag on the ground outside the vehicle by Defendant’s passenger door, which had not been there before.  In the meantime, the driver consented to the officer’s request to search the vehicle.  The officer questioned Defendant about the bag, but Defendant insisted the bag did not belong to him and that he did not place the bag outside the car.  In the bag were 220 pills totalling 59.02 grams of Oxycodone.  Defendant was charged with possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance, MCL 333.7401(2)(a)(iii).

             The trial court granted Defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence and dismiss the charge, but the Court of Appeals reversed, finding the stop and search to be constitutional under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 1, § 11 of the Michigan Constitution, even though the bulk of the search focused on the driver, but Defendant was the one who was arrested. 

            The Fourth Amendment and Article 1, § 11 guarantee a person’s right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.  When a police officer searches without a warrant, the search is deemed to be unreasonable unless an exception applies.  Two common exceptions are an automobile search and consent.  If an officer has an articulable and reasonable suspicion that a vehicle or one of its occupants has violated a law, the vehicle can be stopped.  The Court of Appeals held that here, the weaving gave the officer a reasonable suspicion that the driver could be intoxicated, giving the officer the right to stop the vehicle.  All of the action after that point was then legal.  The Court of Appeals stated that when a traffic stop reveals a new set of circumstances, here, the failure to produce a valid license, an officer is justified in extending the detention long enough to resolve the suspicion raised.  This is so even if it results in a passenger being arrested, not the driver who caused the suspicion in the first place.  As to the bag, one placed outside the car, it is deemed abandoned and there is not expectation of privacy in it, so it can be seized and searched without a warrant. The Court of Appeals reinstated the charges against Defendant.


What This Means For Drivers:

 Even if the stop shows that the initial suspicion of a broken law is false, if the stop reveals a new set of circumstances that is reasonably suspicious, the officer can detain longer and inquire further.  And this is true even if the focus changes from the driver to the passenger.

You can view the entire opinion here.

Authored by Barbara A. Assendelft