DUI Arrest Justifies Warrantless Search of Car

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Taylor v. State, (Md. 2016)

An officer stopped Taylor for speeding and blowing a stop sign. The officer smelled alcohol on Taylor’s breath and body, saw Taylor’s bloodshot and glassy eyes and noted that Taylor’s speech was so slurred that it was hard to understand some of what he said. The officer administered standard field sobriety tests. Based on Taylor’s poor performance on the tests, the officer arrested him for driving under the influence. A backup officer searched Taylor’s car incident to the arrest. He found a clear plastic baggy containing 76 knotted bags of powder cocaine.

Taylor claimed that the search of his car violated the rule articulated in Arizona v. Gant (556 U.S. 332 (2009)). In Gant, the Supreme Court held that officers may conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle’s passenger compartment incident to arrest only when it is “reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.” Taylor argued that he had been handcuffed and there was nothing from the circumstances of his arrest to reasonably lead the officers to conclude that the car would hold evidence related to the crime of driving under the influence.

The court disagreed, relying on testimony from the arresting officer that his training and DUI enforcement experience taught him that there was a “good possibility” that Taylor’s car would have open containers of alcohol related to the DUI investigation. The court stated that it must “assess the evidence through the prism of an experienced law enforcement officer, and give due deference to the [officer’s] training and experience.”

The decision signals the deference that the court will give in applying the Gant decision and highlights the value of thorough reports and testimony. The result in this case was possible because the officer testified about his training and his prior experience leading him to believe that open containers are often found in the cars of drivers arrested for DUI. Though it isn’t evident from the court’s decision, it is likely that the officer was thorough enough to include that information in the report provided to the prosecutor.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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