State Prosecuting Attorney's 2017 Annual Report for Judicial Support Agencies, Boards, and Commissions
“Has a Fourth Amendment violation occurred, where a police officer approaches a vehicle passenger, after the passenger has exited the vehicle, and conducts a warrantless search of the passenger’s pockets, in the driveway of the passenger’s house?”
Police observed Thomas make a brief visit at a known drug house. He then got in the passenger side of a car. Other officers followed the car and observed the driver fail to signal a turn. The car pulled up to another house (which, as it turned out, was Thomas’s house), and the police car followed and turned on the flashing lights. Thomas got out and began walking up the driveway, carrying a beer can in his hand. An officer told him to stop. He turned around and began “making movements toward his midsection area.” The officer handcuffed him and saw a prescription pill bottle protruding from his pant pocket. She removed the bottle and “saw that it did not have defendant’s name on it and it had Xanax tablets inside of it.” She then conducted a full search, and in his other front pant pocket, she found another bottle containing crack cocaine. Thomas was arrested for possessing the cocaine. He filed a motion to suppress, which was denied. He pled guilty and appealed the suppression ruling.
The court of appeals held that the detention and search were not unlawful intrusions on Thomas’s curtilage or property and upheld the retrieval and search of the first pill bottle under the plain view doctrine. While it was not immediately apparent that the bottle contained Xanax not prescribed to Thomas, the court held there was probable cause that it was incriminating evidence based on Thomas’s brief visit to the drug house, the officer’s experience arresting others for narcotics possession coming from the same house, and her knowledge that people often carry their narcotics in pill bottles.
Thomas argues that, while caselaw holds that a passenger in a vehicle can be lawfully detained for a traffic violation, his situation was different because he was in the driveway of his home when he was detained and searched. He also challenges the plain view search and contends he was on his own private property and the officer was not lawfully in a place where the pills could have been plainly viewed.