Because the officer acted with the intent to secure Mr. Jackson and not with “the intent to obtain information,” he did not conduct a search.
State v. Jackson
2022 – Ohio – 4365
Supreme Court of Ohio
December 8, 2022
Cincinnati police officers pulled over Mr. Jackie Jackson for a traffic stop. After executing the stop, the officers approached Mr. Jackson’s Pontiac Grand Prix from both sides. The lead officer asked Mr. Jackson to roll down his passenger-side window, turn off the car, and remove the key. Mr. Jackson protested – but rolled down his window and turned off the car without removing the key from the ignition.
When told that he was being pulled over because the officers suspected that his window tint was too dark, Mr. Jackson became visibly agitated and began to argue with the officers. The second officer, who was standing near the passenger side, asked Mr. Jackson if he had his driver’s license and insurance, but she got no response. As Mr. Jackson continued to argue, the lead officer restated the request for his license. Rather than comply, Mr. Jackson began pulling up the camera on his phone. The lead officer then told Mr. Jackson, “You can go ahead and give me your ID, and if you don’t we’ll be getting out of the car.” When Mr. Jackson made no signs of complying and failed to answer the officers’ requests, the lead officer opened the car door and told him to step out. Mr. Jackson continued to argue but exited on his own.
An officer spots a marijuana cigarette, leading to a search and the discovery of a pistol.
By this time, more officers had arrived on the scene. Another officer walked Mr. Jackson to the back of the car while the lead officer removed the key from the ignition. At the rear of the car, the officers patted down and spoke with Mr. Jackson.
One officer then walked over to the driver’s door, which was still open. Peering in, the officer spotted a marijuana cigarette between the door and the seat. He told the others what he had found, leading to a search of the car. In a basket of laundry, the officers discovered a pistol. Mr. Jackson was charged with having a weapon under disability, carrying a concealed weapon, and improperly handling a firearm in a motor vehicle.
Mr. Jackson seeks to suppress the discovery of the pistol.
Mr. Jackson moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the lead officer violated the Fourth Amendment when he ordered Mr. Jackson out of the car. Mr. Jackson asserted that the officer lacked authority to order him from the car and that, therefore, evidence of the pistol that was subsequently discovered should be suppressed as fruit of the poisonous tree. The trial court reviewed the body-camera footage from the stop and denied the motion to suppress. Mr. Jackson pleaded no contest, was sentenced, and appealed.
The First District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of Mr. Jackson’s motion to suppress. The court first noted that Mr. Jackson had waived his challenge to the stop at the suppression hearing. The court then pointed out that under settled law an officer can order a car’s occupant out of a lawfully stopped car without any additional justification. As to the search of the car, the court explained that an officer had observed a plainly visible marijuana cigarette, which gave him probable cause to believe that the car contained contraband and triggered the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.
Mr. Jackson appealed to this court, and we accepted jurisdiction over two of Mr. Jackson’s three propositions of law. He argues that
(1) The first officer conducted an illegal search by ordering him to step out of the car and by opening his car door and;
(2) The second officer committed an illegal search by looking into the open car door and observing the marijuana.
The officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment by ordering Mr. Jackson to exit the car.
The propriety of the stop of Mr. Jackson’s vehicle is not in front of us. The First District found that Mr. Jackson affirmatively waived any challenge to the stop when his attorney told the trial court at the motion-to-suppress hearing, “I’m not questioning the stop.” Mr. Jackson does not contest the First District’s waiver finding in this appeal.
Mr. Jackson does take issue with the officer’s decision to order him from the car. But that challenge is easily dispensed with. Under Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 111, 98 S.Ct. 330, (1977), fn. 6, “[O]nce a motor vehicle has been lawfully detained for a traffic violation, the police officers may order the driver to get out of the vehicle without violating the Fourth Amendment’s proscription of unreasonable searches and seizures.” An officer needs no justification beyond that necessary for the initial stop to order a driver from the car. State v. Evans, 67 Ohio St.3d 405, 408 (1993).
Opening the door was not a search.
Mr. Jackson attempts to circumvent Mimms by arguing that when it is the officer, rather than the driver, who opens the car door, the officer conducts not just a seizure but a search. He submits that as a search, an officer’s act of opening the door must be justified by exigent circumstances. But this argument miscomprehends what constitutes a search.
The United States Supreme Court has identified two rubrics under which government conduct may amount to a search implicating the protections of the Fourth Amendment. First, under the common-law trespass doctrine, a search occurs when there is a “‘physical intrusion of a constitutionally protected area in order to obtain information.’” United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400, 407, (2012), quoting United States v. Knotts, 460 U.S. 276, 286, (1983). Second, under the more-recently developed privacy doctrine, announced in Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 360, (1967), a search occurs when there is an official intrusion into a sphere in which there exists a reasonable expectation of privacy with an intent to obtain information. Importantly, for our purposes, under either doctrine a search occurs only when there is “an attempt to find something or obtain information.”
The lead officer’s opening of the door was not a search because he did not act with the purpose of finding out what was inside the car. As in other Fourth Amendment contexts, an officer’s intent is determined through an objective inquiry. See Torres v. Madrid, 141 S.Ct. 989, 999, (2021). The body- camera footage makes clear that the officer was focused on securing Mr. Jackson, who was being uncooperative. The officer’s intent to secure Mr. Jackson is apparent from both his words and his actions. First, he asked Mr. Jackson to remove the key from the ignition so that Mr. Jackson could not “pull off.” Then, after removing Mr. Jackson from the car, he reached in to remove the keys. Because the officer acted with the intent to secure Mr. Jackson and not with “the intent to obtain information,” he did not conduct a search. Taylor v. Saginaw, 11 F.4th 483, 487 (6th Cir.2021).
None of this is to say that an officer’s opening of a car door can never constitute a search. If an officer opened a car door without the owner’s permission for the purpose of ascertaining what was inside the car, such conduct might well constitute a search – it would be a physical trespass “conjoined with … an attempt to find something or to obtain information.” See Jones at 408, fn. 5. But that is not what happened here. Nothing in the record indicates that the officer opened the door for any reason other than to get Mr. Jackson out of the car.
The second officer did not conduct a search.
Mr. Jackson contends that even if the first officer did not conduct a search by opening the car door, the second officer conducted one when he looked through the open car door and spotted the marijuana cigarette.
To be sure, the second officer acted with an intent to obtain information when he looked into the car. He had no other reason to walk over and peer into the car. In addition, his body camera lingered over the driver’s compartment, indicating that he was taking a long investigative look. However, the second officer’s intent alone did not turn his action into a search. An officer must also conduct a physical trespass or an invasion of privacy for his actions to amount to a search. Jones, 565 U.S. at 408, 132 S.Ct. 945, 181 L.Ed.2d 911, fn. 5.
The second officer did not conduct a search under the trespass doctrine because he did not physically enter the car until after he had spotted the marijuana cigarette. See Taylor, 11 F.4th at 487. All the second officer did was look through an already open door. He did not open the door himself, and the officer who did open the door did so without an intent to obtain information. Without a physical trespass, the second officer’s conduct cannot be considered a search under the trespass doctrine.
Likewise, the second officer did not conduct a search under the Katz privacy doctrine. A person does not have a legitimate expectation of privacy in an object that is in plain view. Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366, 375, (1993). And it “has long been settled that objects falling in the plain view of an officer who has a right to be in the position to have that view are subject to seizure and may be introduced in evidence.” Harris v. United States, 390 U.S. 234, 236, (1968). Because the officer observed the marijuana in plain view when he looked through the open car door, there was no invasion into Mr. Jackson’s legitimate expectation of privacy.
Mr. Jackson attempts to conflate the actions of the two officers, contending that but for the first officer opening the car door, the marijuana cigarette would not have been in plain view and would not have been noticed by the second officer. That may be true, but it does not make for a Fourth Amendment violation. The Fourth Amendment by its terms protects against unreasonable searches. Neither officer conducted a search under the facts of this case.
Under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement, the discovery of the marijuana cigarette in plain view allowed the officers to search the car.
Once the second officer observed the marijuana cigarette, he had probable cause to believe that Mr. Jackson’s car contained contraband. Under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement, officers may search a vehicle without obtaining a warrant when they have probable cause to believe the vehicle contains evidence of illegal activity. See Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, 51, (1970). Thus, the officers did not transgress the Fourth Amendment when they searched the vehicle and found the pistol.
The police conduct in this case did not violate the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. We sustain the decision of the court of appeals affirming the denial of Mr. Jackson’s motion to suppress.
Information for this article was obtained from State v. Jackson, 2022 – Ohio – 4365.
This case was issued by the Supreme Court of Ohio and is binding throughout the State of Ohio.
- One of the key questions that arise in this case is whether opening a car door can be a search. The answer is … maybe, kind of, not always but sometimes – which is a very lawyer – like answer. The Supreme Court of Ohio narrows this question down to the intent of the officer(s), when it opined “The lead officer’s opening of the door was not a search because he did not act with the purpose of finding out what was inside the car. As in other Fourth Amendment contexts, an officer’s intent is determined through an objective inquiry. See Torres v. Madrid, 141 S.Ct. 989, 999, (2021)”. This court qualifies this statement by stating “None of this is to say that an officer’s opening of a car door can never constitute a search. If an officer opened a car door without the owner’s permission for the purpose of ascertaining what was inside the car, such conduct might well constitute a search—it would be a physical trespass “conjoined with … an attempt to find something or to obtain information.” See United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400, 407, fn. 5 (2012). But that is not what happened here. Nothing in the record indicates that the officer opened the door for any reason other than to get Mr. Jackson out of the car.”. Consequently, law enforcement must assure that when opening a car door the officer must know what legal block he is operating in that moment.
- Mr. Jackson was ordered to step out of the car by Cincinnati Police and this order was challenged by Mr. Jackson’s legal team. When a car is lawfully stopped, law enforcement can order the driver out of the car based on Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106 (1977) and any passengers based on Maryland v. Wilson, 519, U.S. 408 (1997). Additionally, in the state of Ohio, law enforcement can order drivers who were involved in traffic crashes to step out of the vehicle based on State v. Darrington, 54 Ohio St.2d 321 (1978). However, Mimms, Wilson and Darrington are ALL qualified by State v. Lozada, 92 Ohio St.3d 74 (2001). Lozada limits what law enforcement can do with the driver and passengers once they are ordered out of the vehicle. Officers cannot place the drivers or passengers in the cruiser that would include a pat down IF placement of the driver or passenger in the cruiser is for the officer’s convenience. For more on the Lozada limitation see Don’t Just Sit There! – Lessons Learned #4.
- The unnamed Cincinnati Police Officers should be highly commended for their officer safety and legal acumen to stop, investigate and be instrumental in successfully prosecute Mr. Jackson! Well done CPD!
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