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Drug charges after traffic stop must pass constitutional muster

Traffic stops account for a significant percentage of the drug crimes charged each year in Louisiana. There are specific constitutional restraints, however, that police must meet regarding drug charges arising out of a traffic stop. The first consideration is that the police may not stop a vehicle without a reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed and/or that a traffic offense is occurring.

In order to go beyond that initial stop and check, the police must have probable cause. Many cases turn on whether the evidence cited by the police is sufficient to justify making a full search of the car and its occupants. These issues are likely to be relevant in the recent arrest of a driver and his passenger by the Mangham Police in Richland Parish.

The police stopped a vehicle on U.S. 425 South after an officer's radar reportedly indicated a speed of 59 mph in a 45 mph zone. The officer stated that the driver appeared nervous and that a computer check showed outstanding warrants. Police say the 39-year-old male driver had an extensive criminal history. When he exercised his right to refuse a search of the car, police called a canine unit from the Richland County Sheriff's Office.

The deputy reported positive indications on the front and passenger side doors, and a full search was conducted. Inside the trunk, police allegedly found a black bag inside a suitcase. It allegedly contained over 10,000 Ecstasy pills. Both the driver  and his 33-year-old passenger were arrested on drug charges regarding intent to sell the illegal pills.

Louisiana and federal constitutional principles raise several issues regarding this arrest. For one thing, there is no reported evidence that the passenger had anything to do with the contraband in the trunk. If it was not under her possession or control, the arrest in her case may have difficulty withstanding constitutional scrutiny. Other issues include whether the police had sufficient evidence to conduct a search, whether they could proceed with a K-9 search after being denied permission and whether they had the authority to open the suitcase found in the trunk.

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