Society

Misplaced Registration Decal Not Enough To Justify Search That Turned Up Crack Cocaine, Georgia Court Rules

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The six rocks of crack cocaine found on a man pulled over in a 2009 traffic stop can’t be used against him in court, because just placing his registration sticker on the wrong side of his license plate was no reason to search his vehicle, a Georgia court ruled last month.

James Heard was pulled over by cops on July 24, 2009. They’d received a tip of “illegal narcotics” connected to a “older model, blue, Chevy S-10” truck. Heard’s vehicle matched that description.

According to court documents, an officer told Heard that he was pulled over for having a two-year-old registration sticker. Heard produced proof that his registration was valid. Officers verified that he was telling the truth and had no outstanding warrants.

But one officer noticed that Heard, who was now surrounded by three officers, appeared “nervous,” according to police testimony.

An officer also saw that Heard’s vehicle registration sticker was placed on the left side of the truck’s license plate, not the right as is normally required.

Though Heard checked out and the officer’s stated reason for the traffic stop was now done with, the officer asked Heard if he could search the vehicle anyway. Heard refused, but after the cop ordered him out of the truck and frisked him, Heard gave his consent to the search.

That’s when the officers found the crack cocaine in the vehicle.

A three-judge majority of the five-member Georgia Court of Appeals said that the reasons for the search weren’t good enough to justify a drug search. The reasons for the traffic stop — the two-year-old misplaced sticker — were valid, the court ruled. But “nervousness” and an unverified anonymous tip were not enough to turn the routine stop into a drug investigation, the court ruled.

"In fact, the officer could lawfully verify the registration, driver's license and insurance information, and check for outstanding warrants; but any subsequent interrogation or request for consent had to be supported by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity," wrote Chief Judge Herbert E. Phipps.

SOURCES: Georgia Court of Appeals, The Newspaper