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Virginia Defendant Successfully Argues Officers Invaded Right to Privacy During Vehicle Search

In a recent case coming out of a Virginia court, the Commonwealth attempted to argue that the defendant’s motion to suppress incriminating evidence should have been denied. Originally, two officers pulled the defendant over in his vehicle and searched the car after getting a glimpse of an open container as well as a bit of marijuana inside. The defendant argued the officers’ search was unconstitutional, and the lower court agreed with him. When the Commonwealth appealed, the higher court affirmed the lower court’s decision and concluded that the officers infringed on the defendant’s right to privacy.

Facts of the Case

According to the opinion, two officers stopped the defendant one evening after they noticed his car traveling across lanes without any turn signal. During the traffic stop, the officers noticed an open container of liquor in the passenger seat. The container appeared as if was partially empty, even though the bottle cap was still screwed on.

The officers asked the defendant’s passenger to produce her identification. When she reached for her purse and wallet, the officers noticed a green, leafy substance inside of her wallet that they suspected was marijuana. The passenger confirmed that she had purchased the substance and that it was indeed marijuana; however, the marijuana was legal and the officers had no reason to suspect there were other drugs inside the vehicle.

The officers proceeded to search the car. They subsequently found a backpack on the floor behind the driver’s seat. Upon opening the backpack, the officers found a handgun and more unburnt marijuana. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence, and the lower court agreed: the search was unjustified, thus the resulting evidence should not come into evidence. The Commonwealth promptly appealed.

The Decision

On appeal, the Commonwealth argued that the officers could reasonably search the vehicle because they had seen both the open container and the marijuana during the traffic stop. The container and the marijuana gave the officers reason to suspect that there might be more drugs or weaponry in the car; thus, their search was valid and the evidence should not have been suppressed.

The defendant, on the other hand, argued that under the U.S. Constitution, he has a right to privacy inside his vehicle. Officers cannot search individuals’ cars without probable cause to believe there are drugs or weaponry inside. Here, Virginia law does not prohibit open containers; it only prohibits consuming alcohol while driving. Virginia law also allows possession of the kind of marijuana that the defendant’s passenger had on her person. Thus, there was no violation of Commonwealth law, and the officers could not reasonably assume there was incriminating evidence in the car.

The court agreed with the defendant. The open container and marijuana alone were not sufficient to give the officers reason to invade the defendant’s privacy by searching the vehicle. Thus, said the court, the evidence was properly suppressed and the lower court’s decision should be affirmed.

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