Kansas court bars odor-based warrantless search

supreme court

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A smell of alcohol from inside a motor vehicle isn’t enough to justify a warrantless search of the interior by law enforcement officers, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in reversing the methamphetamine conviction of a Sedgwick County man whose SUV contained drug paraphernalia.

The decision marks the first time the high court has ruled whether police may proceed without a warrant to search a vehicle for potential violations of the state’s open-container laws based solely on the odor of alcohol.

In the Sedgwick County case, the officers who stopped Robert Stevenson for a turn-signal violation suspected the odor came from spilled alcohol — enough to let them look inside for an open container of alcohol, but not sufficient to search the vehicle thoroughly, the court said in Friday’s ruling.

The justices ruled that drug paraphernalia and a small amount of methamphetamine found in the SUV and in Stevenson’s wallet were seized illegally. The case was returned to Sedgwick County for a new trial without that evidence.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett told The Associated Press a decision on trying Stevenson again would take some time.

“We’ll have to look at the case and talk to the officers and see if there’s a way to prove the case in light of the court’s ruling,” Bennett said.

Stevenson’s prosecution began with an early-morning stakeout of a suspected Wichita drug house in December 2008. The officers followed Stevenson’s Chevy Blazer as he drove away from the house and stopped him for engaging a turn signal 15 to 30 feet from an intersection, not the 100 feet required by Kansas law.

Stevenson submitted to a sobriety test that showed he had not been drinking alcohol. His driver’s license was also clean, and he had no outstanding warrants. But the smell of alcohol prompted the officers to search the SUV without a warrant or Stevenson’s consent.

A leaking bottle of wine was found in the back seat, meaning it was out of the driver’s reach. Kansas law permits open alcohol containers to be carried inside vehicles under some conditions, including their placement in the back seat of those like SUV’s that don’t have trunks.

Lacking evidence of an open container violation, the Supreme Court ruled, the officers had no probable cause to suspect any other criminal activity that would have justified further searching without a warrant.

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