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The Police Cannot Search Your Car To Kill Time While They Wait For Your Aunt To Give You A Ride

I’ve long thought the punishment for failing to turn off your high beams when you drive past another car at night should be much more draconian. Part of me is encouraged to see that the police of Massillon, Ohio apparently agree.

Excessive Use of High Beams

Two men were driving in Massillon, Ohio after midnight on the Fourth of July. The driver declined to dim his high beams as he drove past a car coming toward him. As it happened, the other car was a police car.

Moose.jpgThe police officer did a U turn to follow the high-beam enthusiast. He didn’t pull the car over right away. Instead he just followed them.

As the officer followed the car, he thought he saw the driver and the passenger reach under their seats. The officer said that made him think they were hiding something.

In his experience, looking under the seat of a car when a person has reached under it leads to the discovery of something illegal “95 to 100” percent of the time.

Never the less, the Massillon police officer did not pull the car over. Instead, after a few blocks, the car pulled over and gestured to the officer.

The Scene In the Parking Lot of the Massillon Moose Lodge

In response, the police officer pulled into the parking lot for the Massillon Moose Lodge. The high-beam user followed into the parking lot. The driver jumped out and asked the police officer for directions to Interstate 77.

The officer asked for, and received, the driver’s Ohio state ID (he didn’t have a license) and told the driver to get back into the car.

As it happened, the driver didn’t have a valid license. Neither did the passenger who owned the car. The passenger, Mr. McCraney, was allowed to call his aunt, who said she’d come to pick them up.

When she arrived 25 minutes later, the parking lot was empty.

Massillon’s Finest

The officer had, of course, called for backup. Wikipedia says that Massillon is a town of 32,149. When Mr. McCraney called his aunt, four police cars and five officers were gathered in the parking lot of the Massillon Moose Lodge.

It probably would have been a good time to commit a crime anywhere else in Massillon.

Idle hands are the devil’s playthings. Rather than stand around waiting for the aunt, the Massillon, Ohio police force decided to pull the two men out of the car.

The men stood at the back of the car, surrounded by three officers. For no clear reason, two other officers decided to search the car.

They found a gun under the passenger seat. Mr. McCraney was prosecuted in federal court in the Northern District of Ohio for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

The Search For No Real Reason

Mr. McCraney filed a motion to suppress, saying that the search violated his rights to be free of searches done for no reason other than that the cops had 25 minutes to kill until a guy’s aunt shows up.

The district court agreed, and suppressed the evidence. The government, however, appealed.

In United States v. McCraney, the Sixth Circuit affirmed.

Search Incident to Arrest

The government argued that, really, these guys were under arrest, even though they hadn’t been placed under arrest and the officer let Mr. McCraney call his aunt to pick him up.

The court of appeals held that, even if they were under arrest, searching the inside of a car after the people had been taken out of it is not a search incident to arrest.

A “search incident to arrest” is a search, basically for officer safety, of the body and immediately surrounding area, to make sure a person doesn’t grab a weapon and hurt someone.

It used to be that if a person was taken out of a car, the police could search inside the car “incident to arrest” on the theory that anyone could be that guy from the X-men with Gumby arms who could reach back into the car.

In Arizona v. Gant, the Supreme Court severely narrowed this rule – now the search has to be of an area where a person can actually reasonably reach, without consideration of the possibility that the person being arrested has appeared in a Marvel Comic Book.

Reasonable Suspicion Because of the Reaching

The government also argued that there was reasonable suspicion to search the underside of the passenger seat of the car, because the officer saw reaching under there.

The court of appeals looked at all the circumstances – that the folks were trying to get directions, that they were cooperative and otherwise unsuspicious, and concluded that there was not reasonable articulable suspicion to search in the car.