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Ohio Supreme Court Decision Expected to Reduce Police Use of Traffic Stops as Ploy for Drug Searches


January 1998

The Ohio Supreme Court issued a ruling that is expected to reduce police use of routine traffic stops as a ploy to search vehicles for drugs (State v. Robinette, Ohio SupCt, No. 94-1143, (November 12, 1997)) (James Bradshaw, "Ruling may end traffic stop searches," Columbus Dispatch, November 13, 1997).

The case stems from the April 3, 1992 arrest of Robert D. Robinette after being pulled over for speeding. Deputy Sheriff Roger Newsome gave Robinette an oral warning for speeding, returned his license and asked if he could search the car. Robinette denied having any contraband, and consented to a search. The search revealed a small amount of marijuana and one methamphetamine pill. Newsome did not tell Robinette that he was free to go before he asked to search the vehicle or that he could decline the search.

The case was being reconsidered by the Ohio high court after its original ruling was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court (Ohio v. Robinette, 117 S.Ct. 417, 1996WL662461, 60CrL2002, (November 18, 1996)). The original Ohio court ruling said that a driver's consent to a search is invalid unless the individual is informed: "`At this time you are legally free to go' or by words of similar import" before the consent to search is requested (State v. Robinette, 653 N.E.2d 695, 57CrL1590, (September 6, 1995)).

Ohio Justice Evelyn L. Stratton, who wrote the majority opinion this time, said, "When these factors are combined with a police officer's superior position of authority, any reasonable person would have felt compelled to submit to the officer's questioning." The justices voted 5-2 that evidence seized in such searches must be thrown out in most cases, even if a motorist consents to a search.

In the 1996 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that it would be "unrealistic to require police officers to always inform detainees that they are free to go before a consent to search may be deemed voluntary." Rehnquist said each case must be decided based on the "totality of the circumstances" (see "Consensual Drug Searches During Traffic Stops Upheld by Supreme Court," NewsBriefs, December 1996).