In an opinion released June 30th, the Georgia Court of Appeals overturned the conviction of Leonel A. Dominguez for possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute. It found that Mr. Dominguez was wrongfully detained and his car unlawfully searched, and thus that his conviction could not stand.
This decision reaffirms the Fourth Amendment right of all Americans to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. It also sends a message to Georgia law enforcement officers that their arrests will not result in convictions if they lack probable cause to detain and search individuals.
According to two deputies in the Hall County Sherriff’s Department, they received a tip that a large Hispanic man with a green Crown Victoria was a drug dealer. No other more specific information was given, not even an area in which the drug dealer might be found. While following Dominguez’s green Crown Victoria based on this vague tip, the deputies saw him fail to signal a right turn and they pulled him over. The deputies claimed that Dominguez appeared nervous upon questioning, and that his hands were shaking. The deputies asked him if they could search his car and he refused, as was his constitutional right. At that point, the deputies continued to detain Dominguez for about ten more minutes while a canine unit came to the scene. When it arrived, a drug dog sniffed the car and indicated the presence of narcotics at the driver’s side door. A search revealed three grams of methamphetamine hidden in the steering column and a scale in the trunk.
Before Dominguez’s trial, the deputies could not identify the witness or say how they came into contact with him. Despite these suspicious admissions, the judge denied Dominguez’s motion to suppress the results of the illegal search. At trial Dominguez was convicted of possession with intent to distribute and of failure to use his signal.
On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals stated that officers needed a “particularized reason to suspect that [he was] engaged in some other criminal activity” to lawfully detain Dominguez after dealing with his traffic violation. Further, the court stated that the vague, unconfirmed tip and claims that Dominguez was nervous did not provide a sufficient basis to detain him while the canine unit was called in.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that, before conducting a search, police have probable cause to believe that the search will uncover criminal activity. This standard requires a reasonable, common sense belief based on the specific facts of the case. Furthermore, the “exclusionary rule” generally prohibits the government from using illegally obtained evidence against a criminal defendant at trial.