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Commonwealth v. Smith

Supreme Court of Kentucky

March 22, 2018



          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Andy Beshear Attorney General of Kentucky Larry Wayne Cleveland Zachary Becker Special Assistant Attorneys General

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Willie Edward Peale, Jr.




         The Commonwealth appeals from a Court of Appeals' decision which upheld the trial court's suppression of evidence discovered as a result of a canine sniff search of Appellee's, John E. Smith, vehicle during a traffic stop. The Commonwealth contends that the Court of Appeals erred by concluding that 1) the sniff search improperly extended the traffic stop; 2) the traffic stop was the only legal justification for stopping Appellee; and 3) the Commonwealth failed to preserve for appellate review its claim that Appellee's parole status alone permitted police to conduct a warrantless, suspicionless search of his vehicle.

         We granted discretionary review. For the reasons stated below, we affirm the Court of Appeals' decision.


         Franklin County Sheriffs Detective Richard Quails had been surveilling Appellee for about three weeks trying to corroborate tips received from confidential informants that Appellee had been trafficking in cocaine at a bar in Frankfort. Quails knew that he lacked probable cause to arrest Appellee on drug trafficking charges. On the evening of Appellee's arrest, Quails followed in an unmarked police car as Appellee left his workplace in his SUV, went to his residence, left the residence, and then drove to a gas station where he interacted with another resident of his apartment building who leaned into the passenger-side window.[1] Quails watched Appellee drive back to his apartment and then leave again a few minutes later in a different vehicle. Eventually, Quails saw Appellee turn without using his. turn signal.

         Because Quails was in plain clothes and driving an unmarked car with no emergency lights or siren, he did not attempt to stop Appellee. Instead, he had prearranged for canine officer Eaton to be on standby, briefed on the situation and ready to respond. Quails radioed Eaton to inform him of Appellee's improper turn. Eaton responded immediately by stopping Appellee's vehicle. He introduced himself as the sheriffs office canine handler, and he informed Appellee that he was stopped for failure to use his turn signal; an allegation which Appellee denied. Eaton asked Appellee if illegal drugs were in his car, and Appellee said there was none. Eaton described Appellee as fully cooperative but nervous. Eaton went back to his cruiser to get the drug dog and then commenced a sniff search around Appellee's car. When the dog alerted at the driver's door, Eaton asked Appellee to exit the vehicle. He searched Appellee's car and found seven grams of cocaine tucked between the front seats. He then arrested Appellee, searched his person, and found $4, 299.00 in his wallet. According to the uniform citation issued by Eaton, eight minutes passed from the time of the traffic violation to the time Appellee was arrested. The citation also noted that Appellee appeared nervous when asked about the presence of drugs.

         Appellee was indicted for first-degree trafficking in cocaine, second or greater offense, greater than or equal to four grams of cocaine. He moved to suppress the evidence obtained during the search of his vehicle and his person. He argued that the traffic stop was not legal because the alleged traffic violation . did not occur in Eaton's presence, and the officers did not have a reasonable, articulable suspicion of illegal activity to justify the initial investigative stop of the vehicle.

         The trial court concluded that Quails and Eaton together did not have sufficient knowledge of criminal activity to authorize the initial stop, and that the only valid basis for the stop was the alleged turn signal violation which Eaton did not witness. The trial court also concluded that Eaton's continued detention of Appellee to conduct the dog sniff search exceeded what was reasonably necessary to achieve the purpose of the traffic stop, and for that reason, too, the warrantless search was unreasonable. Consequently, the trial court suppressed the cocaine discovered in the car and the cash found in Appellee's wallet.

         After the Commonwealth moved to alter, amend, or vacate the suppression order, the trial court reiterated that "[r]egardless of the circumstances imputing probable cause from one police officer to another, it is clear to the Court that the Defendant was detained during the stop longer than necessary to dispose of the alleged traffic violation." The trial court maintained its initial conclusion that Quails' long surveillance of Appellee produced nothing of substance to justify a reasonable suspicion that Appellee was engaged in illegal drug activity on the occasion of the traffic stop.

         The Commonwealth appealed the suppression order. The Court of Appeals agreed that the collective knowledge rule permitted Eaton to rely upon Quails' observation of the turn signal violation, and so, it held that the stop of Appellee's vehicle was justified. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court's conclusion that the police officers' collective knowledge of Appellee's criminal record and informants' reports of his drug-dealing activity were insufficient to justify a Terry[2] stop of his vehicle, and that nothing happened during the stop to generate a reasonable and articulable suspicion that Appellee was engaging in criminal activity.[3] The Court of Appeals also agreed with the trial court that the drug sniff search improperly exceeded the scope of the traffic stop without reasonable cause and that the dog sniff unreasonably prolonged the traffic stop.

         Finally, upon grounds that the issue had not been preserved for appellate review, the Court of Appeals refused to consider the Commonwealth's claim that as an active parolee, Appellee's Fourth Amendment rights were curtailed and the warrantless, suspicionless search of his person and vehicle was proper.

         We granted discretionary review, and for reasons stated below, we affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals.

         II. ANALYSIS

         When reviewing a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress evidence, we defer to the trial court's findings of fact to the extent they are supported by substantial evidence and are not clearly erroneous. We review the trial court's conclusions of law de novo. Davis v. Commonwealth,484 S.W.3d 288, 290 (Ky. 2016) (citations omitted). Here, the trial court's factual findings have not been ...

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