n 1983, the United States Supreme Court, in Michigan v. Long [i], held that officers may conduct a search of the passenger compartment of a motor vehicle, limited to areas that could conceal a weapon, when there are specific, articulable facts that provide the officer with a reasonable belief that an occupant of the vehicle is dangerous and may gain immediate control of weapons. On March 19, 2014, the Court of Appeals of Georgia decided the State v. Snead[ii], which serves as an excellent example of an application of the rule from Michigan v. Long.
The facts of Snead, taken directly from the case are as follows:
On July 26, 2011, a report of a suspicious vehicle was made to the Gwinnett County Police Department. The caller reported that a white pickup truck was parked near an intersection with the door open, and the caller was concerned because the vehicle had not left for some time.
When the officers arrived, they observed that the truck was parked near other vehicles at a multi-family residence near the side of the road. Snead was lying across the seat of the truck when the officers approached, and he leaned over to close the open vehicle door after being awoken by the officer’s headlights. The first officer on the scene was Jonathan Hensley, who testified that he approached the truck from the driver’s side and asked Snead what he was doing, to which Snead responded that he was visiting a friend.
Officer Hensley noticed that Snead appeared to be impaired, was jittery and visibly shaking during the encounter, seemed confused, and had thick and slurred speech. While speaking with Snead, Officer Hensley noticed an empty gun holster tucked above the seat of the truck. Officer Hensley asked Snead if he had a weapon in the vehicle based on his observation of the holster, but Snead stated that the holster belonged to a friend, and that no weapon was in the vehicle.
During Officer’s Hensley’s conversation with Snead, Officer Michael Croyle arrived on the scene and approached the truck from the passenger’s side of the vehicle. As he looked into the open, passenger-side window of the truck, Officer Croyle observed a silver handgun beside Snead’s hand, in a location that would not be visible to Officer Hensley, and Officer Croyle called out the officer code word to alert Officer Hensley of the weapon’s existence. At that point, Snead grabbed the weapon by the handle with his finger in the trigger guard, and both officers drew their service weapons and commanded Snead to drop the weapon. Officer Hensley testified, “both of us drew our weapons because we didn’t know what he was doing. We didn’t know if he was going to shoot someone or what. Obviously, that’s a kind of hostile motion to pick up a gun in the presence of two cops for what appeared to be no reason.” Snead dropped the weapon, and Officer Hensley removed Snead from the vehicle from the driver’s side and walked him to the rear of the vehicle, but did not cuff him. Officer Hensley testified that while he had Snead outside the vehicle, Officer Croyle then entered the vehicle “to secure the weapon” so that “it was no longer an issue as to what was going on.”
Officer Croyle, on the other hand, testified that as he was outside the vehicle, he saw a pipe containing what appeared to be marijuana residue on the seat by the firearm, and a spoon with what appeared to be a white powdery substance on the floorboard next to the area of the seat upon which the gun and pipe were located. Officer Croyle testified that he then opened the passenger-side door to retrieve the contraband pipe and spoon, and he searched the passenger compartment of the vehicle, finding in the glovebox several needles, small baggies, and empty prescription bottles, one of which contained an Oxycodone pill. [iii]
Snead was charged with drug and weapons offenses under Georgia law. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence in this case and argued that it violated his Fourth Amendment rights for the officer to enter his truck and search it. The trial court agreed and granted the motion to suppress holding that once Snead was removed from the vehicle there was no danger posed from the unconcealed gun and the officers knew nothing was committed at the point the officer opened the door. The court also found that the drug pipe and spoon could not have been visible to the officer until he opened the door, which the court held he was not authorized to do.
The State appealed to the Court of Appeals of Georgia. The court of appeals reversed the trial court and held that the motion to suppress should not have been granted. First, the court noted that Snead was not secured at the time the officer entered the truck to take control of the weapon. Second, the court noted that the officer entered the truck to secure the weapon, simultaneously, with the other officer’s removal of Snead from the truck. Third, the court noted that this was not a case which simply involved a legally possessed weapon in the vehicle; rather, Snead had to be told by the officers to drop the weapon. This demonstrates the officer’s reasonable belief that Snead posed a danger to their safety. The court then stated:
Although the trial court found that Officer Croyle entered the vehicle to seize the pipe and spoon, the entry into the vehicle was authorized to secure the known weapon and conduct a Terry-style protective sweep for others, and the officer’s potentially ulterior motive of searching for contraband does not play a part in our Fourth Amendment analysis. [iv]
Thus, the officer’s possible ulterior motive of entering the truck to seize the drug evidence was irrelevant because it was objectively reasonable for the officer to enter the truck to secure the firearm which would then have led to the discovery of the drug evidence.
The court did note that this case was distinguishable from some other cases where they have held it was not reasonable for officers to enter vehicles to secure weapons. In these cases, the officer could not articulate any facts to indicate the vehicle occupants were dangerous, other than that a lawfully possessed weapon was in the vehicle. [v] For example, in the State v. Jones [vi], an officer stopped a truck for a traffic violation and while speaking with the driver, observed a hunting rifle in the truck. The officer testified that Jones made no furtive or threatening movements, and he was not in fear for his safety. The officer testified that he secured the rifle and searched the truck for further weapons as part of his standard procedure when encountering weapons in vehicles. The court of appeals held that the drugs found during the search must be suppressed and stated:
Georgia decisions agree that in order to justify a search of a vehicle for weapons, some conduct on the part of the occupants such as furtive movements or other indications of danger to the officer must be shown, and the officer must have an “objectively reasonable” belief that the occupants of a vehicle are “potentially dangerous.”Silva v. State, 278 Ga. 506, 508, 604 S.E.2d 171 (2004) (driver leaned under seat as if to conceal weapon and drove recklessly while in that position, then offered implausible explanation for his conduct). Here, no evidence was presented of furtive movements or danger; in fact, the officer candidly acknowledged that the search was merely his standard procedure because any firearm might be stolen. On its face, as noted by Jones, this policy justifies the search of any vehicle occupied by hunters or sport shooters with their firearms, or any pickup truck with a rifle or shotgun on the rear window rack. This is precisely the danger of “carte blanche authority to `secure’ all weapons during a routine traffic stop,” noted by the special concurrence in Megesi, supra, 277 Ga.App. at 860, 627 S.E.2d 814. [vii]
Thus, in Snead, because the officers had to tell Snead to drop the gun, this was sufficient to show that he posed a reasonable threat to the officers, even though he put the gun down and was exiting the truck as the back-up officer entered the truck. As such, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s grant of the motion to suppress.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] 463 U.S. 1032 (1983)
[v] Id. (Compare with Bell v. State, 295 Ga. App. 607, 611 (2) (672 SE2d 675) (2009), Doyle, J. authoring, (no furtive movements by the occupant or other indications of danger to an officer which would justify a search for weapons in a limited area in which a weapon may be placed or hidden); State v. Jones, 289 Ga. App. 176, 178-179 (657 SE2d 253) (2008) (affirming trial court’s order suppressing a reasonable articulable suspicion to seize a firearm from the defendant’s vehicle based on the mere existence of the weapon in the vehicle without more).
[vi] 289 Ga. App. 176 (2008)
[vii] Id. At 179