State v. Vega

154 Ohio St.3d 569 (2018)

Supreme Court of Ohio

Based on the probable cause to search and the holding in Ross, [Officer] Madej lawfully opened the sealed envelopes.”

On Saturday March 28, 2015, Officer Jeffrey Madej, of the Cleveland State University Police Department, observed Mr. Vega turn left at a red light at E. 18th Street and Euclid Avenue in Cleveland. He initiated a traffic stop, and while approaching the car, he smelled a strong odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle. He asked Mr. Vega to exit the vehicle because he intended to search it based on the strong smell.

Officer Madej observed Mr. Vega fail to signal at the corner of Euclid Avenue and East 18th Street in Cleveland, Ohio which began the investigation in this case.  Interestingly, the stop occurred five blocks from where Det. Marty McFadden stopped John Terry on October 31, 1963 that led to THE most important law enforcement legal case, Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).

During the search, Officer Madej recovered three cell phones, several raw buds of marijuana, a small amount of what Madej called “shake weed,” and an open package of fruit flavored SweetStone candy in the console. He also found several cases of rolling papers, aerosol canisters containing an odor masking agent, and a partially opened U.S. Postal Service box containing two sealed Priority Mail envelopes. Officer Madej felt the packages and believed that they contained individually packaged drugs. Mr. Vega told him that they contained stickers, but Officer Madej did not believe the contents felt like stickers and wanted to open them. Mr. Vega refused to consent.

Officer Madej contacted his supervisor and other officers in an attempt to determine whether he had probable cause to open the envelopes and to secure a drug-detecting dog but he could not do so. He then wrote Mr. Vega tickets for making an illegal turn and possessing marijuana. After explaining the tickets to Mr. Vega, Officer Madej decided to open the sealed envelopes based on the odor of marijuana coming from the car and the discovery of three cell phones, the aerosol canisters, the large quantity of rolling papers, the marijuana buds, and the shake weed.

Officer Madej opened one of the envelopes and found three large Ziploc clear bags containing 75 packages that indicated that they contained marijuana-infused candy. Officer Madej realized that the packaging was the same as the packaging of the candy he had seen in the center console and that it also was marijuana infused. He then arrested Mr. Vega for drug trafficking. The arrest occurred one hour and 12 minutes after the initial traffic stop. Later testing confirmed the candy contained marijuana. The second sealed envelope was later opened and also contained 75 packages of marijuana-infused candy.

Mr. Vega was indicted, and he filed a Motion to Suppress which the trial court granted.  Cleveland State University appealed to the Eighth District Appellate court that upheld the trial court and suppressed the marijuana.  Both courts opined that the Officer Madej unlawfully opened the sealed envelopes.  Cleveland State University appealed again to the Supreme Court of Ohio which overturned the lower courts and held “Based on the probable cause to search and the holding in Ross, [Officer] Madej lawfully opened the sealed envelopes.”

Lessons Learned:

  1. The Supreme Court of Ohio overturned the lower court’s suppression of the evidence primarily on long established case law. I crafted a blog post on that case titled What is in Bandit’s Paper Bag.  If law enforcement establishes probable cause that contraband is within a car, the officer can search the vehicle, to include packages therein.  In 1982 the U.S. Supreme Court held in U.S. v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982) “If probable cause justifies the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle, it justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search.”  Then nine years later the U.S. Supreme Court held “The police may search an automobile and the containers within it where they have probable cause to believe contraband or evidence is contained.” California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991).  What is confusing, most especially for law enforcement officers, is how the lower courts came to a different conclusion.  Clearly Officer Madej had established probable cause that contraband … marijuana was within the car.  So, searching any container within the car was long established in 1982 and reaffirmed in 1991.
  1. Officer Madej sought supervisory guidance in the midst of the stop. He, his supervisor and the chain of command should be commended for creating a culture that facilitated this communication.  Law enforcement is THE hardest job in America and seeking help from our teammates and leaders is always a good idea.
  1. The initial stop occurred in 2015 long before Ohio changed the Hemp and Marijuana laws. Since that time this landscape has changed.  However, even if that stop occurred after the law changed there was plenty of drug paraphernalia that was found within the car that may have provided enough probable cause for a vehicle search.
  1. When the case was finally remanded to the Cuyahoga Court of Common Pleas Mr. Vega was found not guilty. Evidently, the gummy bears, which were nestled inside the Priority Envelopes, had less than .3% THC which was not in violation of current Ohio law.  What is unclear is if the Better Business Bureau had any complaints of Mr. Vega’s previous sales for gummy bears, which did not meet the consumers expectations of impairment.

Does your agency train on Vehicle Searches?

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and objectively reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.