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Virginia Court Allows Officers’ Search of Defendant’s Car Before His Arrest

Last month, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a Virginia drug case involving a defendant’s motion to suppress drugs that were recovered by police under the driver’s seat of a car he occupied. The defendant claimed that the officers’ search of the car violated his constitutional rights. However, the court disagreed, affirming his conviction.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, officers received a call for a “disorderly situation” involving two males and one female. The caller told the 911 operator that one of the people had a gun.

When officers arrived on the scene, they saw two vehicles, parked facing one another. Officers parked on the street, and walked towards the vehicle. As they approached the white car, they saw the defendant in the driver’s seat. When he looked up, he immediately lunged towards the floorboard for a few seconds before getting out of the vehicle.

Officers stopped the defendant and patted him down, finding nothing. Then, because of the defendant’s movements as they were approaching and the fact that the caller reported one of the people involved had a gun, the officers searched the front driver’s seat area of the car. They found white powder they believed to be cocaine, unused baggies, and a scale.

The defendant was arrested and charged with possession of cocaine. In a pretrial motion to suppress, the defendant argued that the officers did not have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to search the car. The trial court denied the motion, finding that, at the time of the search, the defendant was not under arrest, and that the search was a legal protective sweep.

The defendant appealed; however, the appellate court affirmed the denial of his motion. The court explained that, while lawful occupants of a vehicle have a right to privacy in anything found in the vehicle, officers are permitted to conduct a protective sweep if they reasonably believe that the suspect may gain access to the area where a weapon may be located. Protective sweeps are allowed up to the point a person is under arrest or in custody, because at that point, there is no risk in them gaining access to the weapon. However, protective sweeps are permissible during an investigatory detention, which is a lesser form of custody than an arrest.

Here, the court held that the officers had a reasonable belief that the defendant could have been armed and dangerous based on the 911 call and the defendant’s movements in the car. Additionally, the court deferred to the lower court’s finding that the defendant was not in custody or under arrest. Thus, the court affirmed the lower court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress.

Have You Been Arrested for a Virginia Drug Crime?

If you currently face Virginia drug charges, the dedicated criminal defense attorneys at Robinson Law, PLLC, can help. We have extensive experience providing aggressive representation to clients charged with all types of narcotics offenses, including those stemming from a search of a vehicle. We understand that having open criminal charges is stressful, and that you will have many questions about your case; we welcome your questions and your involvement. To learn more, and to schedule a free consultation, call 703-542-4008.

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