We do not believe the evidence supports a conclusion that Raslovsky was holding the purse at the time of the stop, and we further conclude it is not unreasonable to ask persons momentarily removed from a vehicle for a dog deployment to leave behind property not on their person at the time of the traffic stop. As it is, the search of Raslovsky’s purse was lawful based on the probable cause arising from the drug dog’s alert. While Raslovsky’s purse was in the vehicle, probable cause arose that allowed officers to search the interior of the vehicle and containers therein.

State v. Raslovsky

2020 – Ohio – 515

Second District Appellate Court

Montgomery, County

One evening in June 2018, a group of Springfield, Ohio police officers were working as part of a task force formed to look for suspected drug activity. Two officers were watching a particular city street in an unmarked vehicle, investigating complaints of drug activity. Around 9:15 p.m., a vehicle stopped on the street they were watching and left a few minutes later. The officers could not tell if the vehicle had stopped at one of the suspected houses. They followed the vehicle for several blocks and eventually saw it fail to signal a turn. The officers radioed Officer Derrick Nichols, a drug canine officer, who proceeded to stop the vehicle for the turn-signal violation.

Officer Nichols approached the vehicle on foot and saw a driver and three passengers. Officer Nichols began speaking with the driver. Other officers soon arrived and spoke with the passengers. Officer Nichols had the driver step out of the vehicle, which she did, taking her purse. The driver consented to a search of her purse, and Officer Nichols found no contraband inside. The driver also consented to a search of the vehicle.

The officers decided to deploy the drug dog, Gary, and asked the occupants to get out of the vehicle. What happened next is not entirely clear from the trial court’s decision, perhaps because neither party focused on whether the location or circumstances of Ms. Stephanie Raslovsky’s purse mattered. The decision indicates “the defendant exited with her purse, but Officer Nichols either placed it back into the vehicle or instructed her to do so.” But the specific testimony and the audio/video recording of the stop provided a different perspective. The defense called Ms. Raslovsky as a witness but did not inquire about the purse, its location, or what Ms. Raslovsky did with it. On cross-examination, the State asked whether she remembered “where the purse was in the driver passenger (sic) seat?” She answered “[w]hen I got out of the vehicle and I picked my purse up to get out and they took it from me and put it back in, I’m not sure where they placed it at.” But this description is not entirely consistent with the audio-video evidence, which showed that Officer Lish, not Officer Nichols, had been standing outside the closed passenger side door, apparently talking with Ms. Raslovsky, before the decision was made to empty the vehicle for the dog deployment. The audio recording, which was only from Officer Nichols’s microphone, did not pick up Officer Lish’s conversation on the passenger side of the vehicle at this time. But Officer Lish clearly opened the passenger door for Ms. Raslovsky

Officer Lish apparently told her to leave the purse, because at the time she exited she did not have a purse with her.  The officer was standing back at door-length from the vehicle. He did not appear to take anything from her, and he did not reach into the vehicle to place something back into the vehicle. He entered the vehicle only after the doors were closed and then Gary “hit” on the passenger side door. The conclusions that Ms Raslovsky did not exit with her purse and that the officer did not take it from her and return it to the vehicle were confirmed by Ms. Raslovsky’s own statement to Officer Lish, after the beginning of the search: Officer Lish asked “Stephanie,” who was outside the car, about the purse.  She approached the car and, she said, “I tried to take my purse and you guys told me to leave it in.” Only thereafter can she be heard stating that the police did not have permission to search the purse.

After the dog alerted to the odor of narcotics at the passenger side door, officers searched the inside of the vehicle, including Ms. Raslovsky’s purse. In the purse, officers found a plastic bag containing white rocks that were believed to be crack cocaine. Upon questioning, Ms. Raslovsky admitted that it was crack.

Ms. Raslovsky was arrested and later indicted on one count of possession of cocaine, a fifth-degree felony. She moved to suppress the drugs found in her purse. A suppression hearing was held at which the only witnesses were Officer Nichols, a police dispatcher, and Ms. Raslovsky herself. Officer Lish did not testify. Afterwards, the trial court overruled the motion to suppress, concluding that the stop, Ms. Raslovsky’s removal from the vehicle, the dog sniff, the search of the vehicle, and the search of Ms. Raslovsky’s purse were all lawful. Ms. Raslovsky pleaded no contest to the possession charge and was sentenced to ten months in prison with optional post-release control of three years.

Ms. Raslovsky appealed to the Second District Appellate Court which held “We do not believe the evidence supports a conclusion that Raslovsky was holding the purse at the time of the stop, and we further conclude it is not unreasonable to ask persons momentarily removed from a vehicle for a dog deployment to leave behind property not on their person at the time of the traffic stop. As it is, the search of Raslovsky’s purse was lawful based on the probable cause arising from the drug dog’s alert. While Raslovsky’s purse was in the vehicle, probable cause arose that allowed officers to search the interior of the vehicle and containers therein.”.  Id at 23 – 24.  Consequently, the Second District Appellate Court determined that Stephanie’s crack belonged in the car.

Information for this article was obtained from State v. Raslovsky, 2020 – Ohio – 515.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Second District Appellate Court has made it clear, supported by the Supreme Court of Ohio in State v. Mercier, 117 Ohio St.3d 1253 (2008) that if a purse or container, not in the possession of the occupant at the time of the stop, the officer may order the occupant to leave that container inside during a canine sniff. The Supreme Court of Ohio, in Mercier, did hold that a purse in possession of an occupant at the time of the traffic stop may be left inside the vehicle prior to a canine sniff.  The justification for an officer to order an occupant to leave a container inside the vehicle, even if the occupant was holding the container at the time of the stop, was grounded in Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295, 307 (1999); see “Not my Bag!” Defense Fails AND Expands the Motor Vehicle Exception, for more information on Houghton.
  1. At the time the Officer Lish and Officer Nichols ordered the occupants out of the vehicle to facilitate the canine search the officers did not have probable cause. Of course, they did not need probable cause so long as the detainment did not prolong the stop.  Once the canine alerted that did provide probable cause to search the interior of the vehicle which led to the discovery of the crack.  See Roy Claimed Forty-Four Seconds Changed His Detention from Reasonable to Unreasonable … But Did the U.S. Supreme Court Agree? for more information on canine searches.
  1. The initial stop was clearly based on suspicion of drug activity without either Reasonable Suspicion or Probable Cause but rather as a pre-textual stop. The Springfield Police Officers utilized a classic pre-textual investigative technique of recognized a fail to signal violation that ripened to a felony arrest.  This is outstanding law enforcement!

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.