9/26/2014DC: Open Container Does Not Justify Car Search
Highest court in the District of Columbia sets rules for searching automobiles for open container violations.
Police officers in Washington, DC were wrong to search cars simply because an open container of alcohol was present. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the District's highest court, ruled Thursday in two cases meant to set the boundaries for an acceptable search and an unacceptable search.
William A. Nash Jr had his search suppressed as unlawful. Metropolitan Police Department Officer Winston and Parrish were driving on Florida Avenue, Northwest, at 1am on March 10, 2013 when they saw Nash standing with his door open holding the distinctive red-and-silver can of Four Loko, a fruit-punch flavored malt liquor, in his hand. Assuming it was alcohol, the officers stopped and walked over to interrogate Nash.
Nash noticed the officers, returned to his car, and emerged holding a water bottle instead of the can. He had shut the car door and was outside the vehicle. Nash told the officers he just wanted to throw the bottle away.
Officer Parrish looked through Nash's car window and saw the Four Loko can in the center console, so he opened the door and found the can was half-full. Nash was arrested for having the open container of alcohol. Officer Parrish searched more and found a handgun in a box on the passenger seat and five 9mm cartridges in the trunk. There was no evidence that Nash was intoxicated.
David Lewis had the less fortunate outcome for his 2am stop on June 16, 2013. A US Park Police officer saw Lewis driving on Ingraham Street, Northwest with a burned-out headlight. After Officer Alto stopped Lewis, he saw an open, half-full bottle of Patron tequila in the center console cup holder. Lewis was arrested, although there were no signs he was intoxicated. The police arriving on the scene decided to search the car for more evidence.
"The majority of times when there is a tequila or liquor type of beverage in a vehicle, they'll be drinking through cups," Officer Alto testified at trial.
The officers found marijuana, a handgun and a box of ammunition. The passenger, Brittney Gibbs, was also placed under arrest. The DC Superior Court threw out the searches for both Nash and Lewis, but the Court of Appeals said the lower court only got the Nash case right since a search must be based on a particularized suspicion.
"There was no evidence that Four Loko is typically packaged, sold, or consumed in a manner that would suggest that additional cans of Four Loko, or other evidence relevant to [the open container law], would be in the car," Judge Roy W. McLeese III wrote for the court. "Although it was certainly possible that the car in Mr. Nash's case might contain additional evidence of [an open container] violation, we conclude that the police lacked a reasonable, articulable suspicion justifying a further search of the car for such evidence."
In the Lewis case, the claim that the search was to find tequila cups was enough.
"The officers' testimony was not 'conclusory' or unexplained, and we do not accept their testimony 'uncritically,'" Judge McLeese wrote. "Rather, we view their testimony as reflecting practical common sense... We therefore conclude that the officers in Mr. Lewis's case had reasonable, articulable suspicion to search the car for additional evidence..."
A copy of the ruling is available in a 250k PDF file at the source link below.