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Illegal Detention Leads to GA Court of Appeals Reversal in Cocaine Trafficking Case

December 3, 2012

In Weems v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that a police officer impermissibly extended the scope of a traffic stop without any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.

The Court reversed the trial court and granted the defendant’s motion to suppress the cocaine and other evidence discovered as a result of the unlawful detention.

Weems was stopped by a Henry County police officer who informed Weems that he pulled her over because there was less than a car length between her car and the one in front of her. Two minutes into the stop, the officer told Weems he was only going to give her a warning. He then asked her to accompany him back to his patrol car where he wrote the citation. The officer asked Weems questions about where she lived and where she had been that day. About five minutes into the stop, the officer completed writing the warning citation but then began questioning her passenger. The officer then decided to check both Weems’ and the passenger’s drivers licenses for warrants and other violations.

About nine minutes into the stop, the officer asked Weems if he could search the car while they waited on the license information. Weems and her passenger declined so the officer conducted a free air search with his drug dog and discovered $18,000 in cash and several baggies containing crack cocaine in a purse near the front of the car. Weems was arrested and charged with cocaine trafficking.

Weems filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized from the car alleging that the prolonged detention and subsequent search were unlawful. At the hearing, the officer testified he extended his detention of Weems and the passenger due to behaviors he observed during the stop that led him to suspect illegal activity. He said he noticed that Weems’ hands were shaking and she was biting her bottom lip. The officer also said he observed the passenger’s carotid artery pulsating rapidly and his legs shaking. The officer also indicated the two told conflicting stories about their activities that night.

Weems’ motion to suppress was denied by the trial court, however the Georgia Court of Appeals granted her application for interlocutory appeal and reversed the trial court’s ruling.

The Court noted that the officer had concluded the traffic stop prior to asking Weems for permission to search the car. Additionally, the Court found that the officer had no articulable basis of suspicion to justify interrogating Weems or searching the car. His task was completed when he handed Weems her warning citation, and his observations of “nervous behavior” were not deemed sufficient to extend the detention any further. Thus, the Court held that the officer exceeded the permissible scope of his investigation and Weems’ motion to suppress should have been granted.

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