Once [Sgt.] Chaffins obtained probable cause to search the vehicle, he could lawfully search the entire vehicle and any place where evidence could be concealed, including the locked safe. 

State v. Malone

2022 – Ohio – 1409

Fourth District Appellate Court

Lawrence County, Ohio

April 21, 2022

On Sunday October 20, 2019, Lawrence County Sheriff’s Sergeant Brian Chaffins stopped Mr. Donald Malone, vehicle for a traffic violation. During the stop, Sgt. Chaffins learned about appellant’s arrest warrant, he placed him under arrest and conducted a search.

During the search, Sgt. Chaffins found inside appellant’s wallet a “jeweler’s bag” that contained what appeared to be crystal meth. Based upon this discovery, Sgt. Chaffins suspected that additional drugs would be found inside appellant’s vehicle, so he searched the vehicle. The vehicle search revealed two hypodermic needles near the center of the front passenger compartment and a small safe on the front passenger’s seat.  When Sgt. Chaffins moved the safe, he heard “something inside of it” and asked appellant about the safe. Sgt. Chaffins obtained the key to open the safe and discovered approximately 14 or 15 grams of crystal meth.  Mr. Malone later admitted that the safe contained about one-half ounce of methamphetamine.  Sgt.  Chaffins believed that the amount of methamphetamine contained in the two bags weighed between 14 and 15 grams.

Mr. Malone was transported to the Lawrence County jail.  Lawrence County Sheriff’s Deputy Jonathan Spoljaric testified that he found a third bag of methamphetamine when appellant changed clothes at the jail.  Dep. Spoljaric explained that, when appellant changed into jail clothes, the deputy found a bag of methamphetamine in appellant’s underwear.  On cross-examination, Dep. Spoljaric clarified that the bag of methamphetamine had fallen out of appellant’s underwear.  He stated: “I do remember methamphetamine being in his underwear and it going onto the floor.”. Mr. Malone was charged with Aggravated Drug Possession O.R.C. §2925.11(A).

Mr. Malone filed a Motion to Suppress which was denied by the trial court.  He filed an appeal to the Fourth District Appellate Court.

Mr. Malone argued in one of three appeals that Sgt. Chaffins lacked probable cause to search his vehicle, including the safe.  Only one of the three appeals will be evaluated herein.

The Fourth District Appellate Court held “Once [Sgt.] Chaffins obtained probable cause to search the vehicle, he could lawfully search the entire vehicle and any place where evidence could be concealed, including the locked safe.”.

Information for this article was obtained from State v. Malone, 2022 – Ohio – 1409.

This case was issued by the Fourth District Appellate Court and is only binding in the following Ohio Counties: Adams, Athens, Gallia, Highland, Hocking, Jackson, Lawrence, Meigs, Pickaway, Pike, Ross, Scioto, Vinton and Washington.

 Lessons Learned:

1.    The Fourth District Appellate Court analyzed Sgt. Chaffin’s vehicle search under both the Probable Cause and Motor Vehicle Standards.  “When a law enforcement officer has probable cause to believe that a vehicle contains contraband, the officer may search a validly stopped motor vehicle based upon the well- established automobile exception to the warrant requirement. State v. Moore, 90 Ohio St.3d 47, 51, 734 N.E.2d 804 (2000), Probable cause exists when there is a “fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.” Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 238, 103 S.Ct. 2317, 76 L.Ed.2d 527 (1983) … Additionally, under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement, law enforcement officers may search containers located within the vehicle so long as they have probable cause to believe that contraband or evidence may be concealed inside the automobile. California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565, 580, 111 S. Ct. 1982, 114 L. Ed.2d 619 (1991); United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 102 S.Ct. 2157, 72 L.Ed.2d 572 (1982). In other words, “[i]f 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.” Ross at 825. Consequently, when officers have “probable cause to search for contraband in a car, it is reasonable for police officers … to examine packages and containers without a showing of individualized probable cause for each one.” Wyoming v. Houghton 526 U.S. 295, 320, 119 S.Ct. 1297, 143 L.Ed.2d 408 (1999); accord State v. Vega, 154 Ohio St.3d 569, 2018-Ohio-4002, 116 N.E.3d 1262 (officer could lawfully open sealed envelope located inside vehicle when officer possessed probable cause to search vehicle). In the case at bar, we do not agree with appellant that Sergeant Chaffins lacked probable cause to search the vehicle and its contents, including the locked safe, for evidence of criminal activity. Chaffins discovered methamphetamine inside a wallet that he had retrieved from appellant’s person. Appellant also admitted that he possessed drugs. The discovery of illegal drugs on appellant’s person gave Chaffins probable cause to believe that the vehicle in which appellant had been traveling contained drug-related evidence.  Once Chaffins obtained probable cause to search the vehicle, he could lawfully search the entire vehicle and any place where evidence could be concealed, including the locked safe.  The trial court did not, therefore, err by overruling appellant’s motion to suppress evidence.”.

2.    In this case the meth found in the vehicle was not found subject to a vehicle inventory but rather a probable cause search.  If Mr. Malone was the single occupant and the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department had a policy that Sgt. Chaffins was to impound Mr. Malone’s meth mmobile,then the meth could have been admitted under the Vehicle Inventory exception.  For more on the Impounding exception see Officer Frank Followed Department Policy … But Should You?.  However, Sgt. Chaffins utilized the Motor Vehicle exception.  For more on the Motor Vehicle Exception see the following:  What is in Bandit’s Paper Bag?, Is the Warrant Requirement Recognizable?  The Officer Not Only ‘Pushed the Envelope’ He Opened Two and Found Gummy Bears, Two Appeals and a Supreme Court Ruling. Law enforcement should always be aware of which legal doctrine they are operating.

3.    Sgt. Chaffins should be commended for his diligence in searching Mr. Malone’s meth mobile to discover additional meth.  Well done Sgt. Chaffins!

Does your agency train on Miranda?

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and Objectively Reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.