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Court Adopts New Standard for Vehicle Searches

00-1757. State v. Murrell.
Hamilton App. No. C-000103. Judgment affirmed.
Douglas, Resnick, F.E. Sweeney, Cook and Lundberg Stratton, JJ., concur.
Moyer, C.J., and Pfeifer, J., dissent.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/newpdf/0/2002/2002-ohio-1483.pdf

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(April 3, 2002) A man stopped by Cincinnati police for speeding in 1999 faces trial on drug charges following a 5-2 determination by the Supreme Court that the arresting officer's search of his car was constitutional.

Justice Alice Robie Resnick wrote the court's opinion.

Attorneys for Marvin Murrell successfully argued to the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court that the state's evidence against Murrell should be suppressed because the search was improper. The search unearthed a cloth bag containing crack and powder cocaine on the floor in front of the driver's seat.

The state Supreme Court ruled in 1992 in State v. Brown that, under the Ohio Constitution, police cannot open closed containers in a suspect's car once the suspect has been arrested for a traffic violation and is confined in a police cruiser. Apparently relying on that decision, the trial court granted Murrell's motion to suppress.

The 1st District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court. Relying on the U.S. Supreme Court's 1981 decision in New York v. Belton, which the Brown court declined to follow on the facts of that case, the appeals court said the search was proper.

Today's opinion overrules Brown and follows Belton, holding that "when a police officer has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, the officer may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile."

The opinion harmonizes the requirements of the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution with the comparable provision in Ohio's Constitution. Justice Resnick noted that the two constitutional provisions "contain virtually identical language with both prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures and both imposing a warrant requirement."

"The Belton court reached a calculated conclusion that a search of the motor vehicle incident to arrest…is a reasonable one, justified principally by concerns for officer safety and preserving evidence," Justice Resnick explained.

She noted that "concerns about a possible lack of probable cause to search in a Belton situation are eased by the fact that probable cause must have been present to arrest the occupant of the vehicle in the first place."

"Belton does not authorize indiscriminate fishing expeditions; only motor vehicles very recently occupied by those who have already been lawfully arrested are subject to a Belton search."

Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer dissented, writing in a separate opinion that the trial court was correct in granting the motion to suppress and that the majority should not have overruled Brown.

"In Brown, this court unanimously rejected Belton stating that 'we do not believe that the certainty generated by a bright-line test justifies a rule that automatically allows police officers to search every nook and cranny of an automobile just because the driver is arrested for a traffic violation.'"

"In the time since [then], nothing has changed to warrant the majority's sudden compulsion to overrule Brown…There is nothing in the record before us to support a conclusion that since our decision in Brown, law enforcement officers have encountered particular difficulty in knowing when to search the passenger compartment of a vehicle incident to an occupant's arrest."

Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, also writing separately, concurred in Chief Justice Moyer's dissent. He commented that the majority had overturned a "measured and wise" decision and that the "holding today seems inclined to skirt the Fourth Amendment rather than work within it."

Michael K. Allen and Scott A. Rubenstein, 513.946.3227, for the state of Ohio.

Hal Roger Arenstein, 513.651.5666, for Marvin Murrell.