Court Finds Probable Cause to Search Vehicle


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Case: People v. Johnson, Michigan Court of Appeals ( Unpublished Opinion )

Issues:

Suppression of evidence; Probable cause to search a vehicle; Illinois v. Gates; People v. Levine; People v. Kazmierczak; Maryland v. Pringle; Warrantless search; The automobile exception.

Summary:

The court held that the trial court erred by granting defendant’s motion to suppress evidence found during a vehicle search because the officers had probable cause to search it. While surveilling a home suspected of being a haven for human trafficking, officers witnessed defendant engage in six hand-to-hand transactions from a vehicle. They subsequently detained him, searched the vehicle, and found a large quantity of cocaine and almost $2,000 in cash. He was charged with possession with intent to deliver less than 50 grams of cocaine, but the trial court suppressed the evidence, finding the officers lacked probable cause. On appeal, the court found that “the number of strikingly similar cash exchanges for something small and concealed, combined with three experienced officers’ suspicion that the hand-to-hand transfers represented drug dealing, supplied probable cause to search the” vehicle. It noted that the “totality of the circumstances established a substantial basis for inferring that [he] likely was selling a controlled substance from the” vehicle. “Probable cause and an exigent circumstance—the possibility that the [vehicle] would drive away before a warrant could be obtained—support[ed] the application of the automobile exception in this case.” The court further noted that three experienced “police officers described hand-to-hand transactions they believed to be consistent with narcotics trafficking. The transactions were strikingly similar. Vehicles approached the [vehicle] and the drivers handed money to the . . . driver.” In return, “the passengers received something small enough to cup in their hands. While it is possible that the small objects purchased were something other than illegal substances, the surrounding circumstances—evening, six transactions within a short time in a deserted and blighted area, movement of the cars to an even more deserted area in four cases, rapid exchanges of money for goods, the immediate departure of the buyers—all support[ed] a ‘fair probability’ that [defendant] was selling contraband from the” vehicle. Thus, the officers “reasonably concluded that they had probable cause to search” it. Reversed and remanded.

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