The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence after finding that the detention of the defendant and search of a vehicle were unconstitutional.
Carr was arrested and indicted for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon after a car in which he was a passenger was stopped and searched by officers of the Fulton County Police Department. The evidence showed that a woman called 911 to report domestic violence perpetrated by her boyfriend. She gave the dispatch operator a description of the suspect and what he was wearing, and informed the operator that he was driving a blue Impala. Based on this information, the officers stopped a blue Impala in the complex where the woman lived. Neither the driver nor Carr, who was a passenger, fit the description given to the officers of the domestic violence suspect. Officer Wood asked both men for identification, ran a check on their licenses, and found no outstanding warrants. While checking the licenses, an officer opened the passenger side door at which point the driver fled. The officer then removed Carr from the vehicle, handcuffed him and placed him in the back of the patrol car. The vehicle was then searched, leading to the discovery of two firearms.
The 911 caller testified that at first she thought her boyfriend was in the Impala, but later realized he was not. She informed dispatch of this, and attempted to inform the officers, but they “didn’t want to talk.” She also testified that as soon as the driver fled the scene, the officer drew her gun, pulled Carr out of the vehicle, and put him on the ground, telling him she would shoot him if he moved. Carr was subsequently placed in the back of the patrol car while the officer searched the vehicle.
In conducting traffic stops, officers may conduct a brief stop in order to investigate suspected criminal activity. The suspicions must be based on specific information and the stop must be limited to the amount of time which is reasonably necessary to investigate the information justifying the stop. A lengthier detention constitutes an arrest and must be supported by probable cause. An officer has probable cause to arrest when the officer possesses knowledge that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the suspect has committed or is committing a crime.
The trial court granted Carr’s motion to suppress the evidence seized during the vehicle search after finding that the police unjustifiably escalated the traffic stop into an unconstitutional arrest. Carr did not match the description of the suspect police were searching for, cooperated fully, and had no outstanding warrants. The officers may have had a reasonable basis to stop the vehicle and conduct a brief investigation, but did not have probable cause to search the vehicle or arrest Carr.
The State argued that the officers’ conduct was reasonable because it was necessary for the officers’ safety. The trial court held, however, that there was no evidence to show that Carr posed any threat to the officers. Furthermore, any concern she may have had should have dissipated once Carr was handcuffed in the back of the patrol car.
The motion to suppress was critical in this case as the firearms discovered during the unlawful search were the only evidence supporting Carr’s possession charge. Thus, the granting of the motion to suppress was akin to a dismissal of the case against Carr.
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