COLUMBUS, Ohio – Police in Ohio were wrong to pull over a driver for having a dirty rental car, and therefore evidence of drugs found from the stop is inadmissible, according to a recent appeals court ruling.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals states in a judgment entry Aug. 22 that Ohio State Highway Patrol officers did not have probable cause to pull over Shaune Woods for following too closely on Nov. 3, 2015.
On that day, Troopers Drew Untied and Michael Wilson were watching
traffic on a highway when Wilson saw Woods' vehicle.
According to the judgment entry, the plate of the vehicle came back to a rental car. Untied stated that people involved with criminal activity often use rental vehicles to avoid seizure of their own property. The vehicle also appeared dusty, which is uncommon for a rental car. The troopers stopped Woods' vehicle for following too closely.
The vehicle was searched and drugs were discovered within the passenger side seat. Woods was charged with possession of drugs, a first-degree felony, and the drugs have been identified as cocaine, according to Licking County Common Pleas Court records.
Judge W. Scott Gwin wrote in the entry that the dash camera footage from the troopers' vehicle shows Woods' vehicle in the right lane and the cruiser in the left lane, several car lengths behind. As the two cars traveled near each other, vehicles in the left lane moved into the right lane.
"Why would the left lane drivers be merging right? Simple. There's a cop car behind them, in the left lane," the ruling states. "Most reasonable drivers merge right when a vehicle behind them appears to want to go faster, especially when it's the police."
Because more cars were in the right lane, drivers braked to accommodate more vehicles. Woods did that as well and the entry states he did not violate the statue of following too closely.
The video evidence prompted the court to find there was not probable cause to believe a traffic violation had been committed.
"The Court finds that the video was more reliable and more accurate than the other evidence offered. And at times, the video simply contradicted the trooper's version of what occurred." the entry states.
Untied testified the car was dusty, which led him to believe it was a long term rental and used to distribute drugs. But the car was not dusty and was as clean as the other cars in the video, according to the court's ruling.
"Who knows what the weather conditions had been like the week, days, or even hours before the stop. It’s Ohio. The point is weather can change quickly here. If that's the threshold by which traffic stops are made, then we're all in jeopardy," the court wrote in the entry. " And if it was dirty, so what? Having a dusty vehicle with fingerprints on the hatch back or tailgate, is not evidence of a traffic violation or reason to believe a crime is being committed."
Licking County Prosecutor Bill Hayes did not return requests for comment about where the case stands after the appeals court ruling.
Follow Maria DeVito on Twitter: @MariaDeVito13