Often, police make felony drug arrests along Interstate 75 in Hancock County.
The highway has long been known as a corridor drug runners use to transport contraband north and south.
If police were able to stop and search every vehicle, chances are a significant number would be found with methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, or, as has become too common in recent years, prescription painkillers.
Most drug arrests made on I-75 begin with a simple traffic stop.
Such was the case in November when two state troopers pulled over a Tennessee man just north of Findlay for following another vehicle too closely.
A search resulted after one of the officers smelled a “strong odor” of marijuana coming from Trenton Shuttlesworth after he stepped outside his vehicle. That quickly led officers to much more.
In Shuttlesworth’s coat pocket a plastic baggie containing 1,066 oxycodone pills was discovered. That was enough for a grand jury to return a first-degree felony charge.
The case, however, took a u-turn recently when Hancock County Common Pleas Court Judge Reg Routson ruled the pills were seized improperly.
Routson noted that while the officers’ observations were enough to justify the traffic stop, the officer’s testimony regarding smelling marijuana was not believable and the facts didn’t support a warrantless search.
Testimony during a suppression of evidence hearing indicated that no marijuana was found on the defendant or in the vehicle, so the officer lacked the probable cause to search the suspect. Routson concluded the oxycodone could not be used as evidence.
Defense attorneys routinely challenge felony drug cases on claims that evidence was illegally obtained by police, but they seldom win their arguments.
So when a motion to suppress evidence is granted, it is significant and serves as a reminder that police actions must be conducted within the law and the Constitution.
Determining probable cause can be a difficult, where-do-you-draw-the-line issue.
As Routson noted in this ruling, the traffic stop occurred during a weekday and during hours when a judge easily could have considered a warrant. Warrantless searches, while allowed in certain circumstances, shouldn’t be done just because they are more convenient.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that citizens are not entitled to same level of privacy in their cars that they enjoy in their homes.
Police must have effective tools to deal with highway crimes, including drug activity, but their power must be weighed alongside the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Routson’s ruling strikes the necessary balance.