ATLANTA - Police cannot prolong a traffic stop just because a driver refuses to consent to a search of the vehicle, a federal appeals court said in overturning the drug conviction of a man caught with 10,000 pills of Ecstasy on Interstate 95.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that a south Georgia deputy made an illegal search because there was no basis to detain Jody James Boyce until a drug-sniffing dog was brought to the scene.
"While we recognize that drug trafficking is a serious problem in this country and we encourage law enforcement agencies to use every available means to control it, we cannot condone the methods that offend the protections allowed by the Constitution," Judge Stanley Birch wrote in a unanimous opinion.
The search uncovered the Ecstasy and two containers of marijuana, and Mr. Boyce pleaded guilty in July 2002 to possession with intent to distribute the drugs. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
However, the plea was entered conditionally because Mr. Boyce believed he was illegally detained and searched.
Liberty County Deputy David Edwards said he became suspicious of Mr. Boyce after pulling over his rental car on I-95 weaving and driving 10 mph under the speed limit the evening of Nov. 2, 2001.
Mr. Boyce told Deputy Edwards he was tired because he had been driving from New Jersey to Florida, and that he planned to return the following Wednesday. The deputy said his suspicions were aroused because that was two days after the rental car agreement expired.
He decided to issue Mr. Boyce a warning and had him wait for seven minutes, during which Deputy Edwards received a clean license check on Mr. Boyce. He asked Mr. Boyce whether there were any illegal drugs or weapons in the car, and Mr. Boyce said no.
Deputy Edwards asked Mr. Boyce whether he would consent to a search, and Mr. Boyce refused. The deputy returned to his patrol car, called for a drug dog unit and asked Mr. Boyce to wait.
Federal prosecutors said Deputy Edwards had reason to suspect Mr. Boyce because he was sweating profusely and acting nervous, he was driving through a known drug corridor and he had said he was returning the car after it was due.
The 11th Circuit panel said that on a videotape recording from Deputy Edwards' car, Mr. Boyce did not appear to be overly nervous and just once wiped his brow, 20 minutes after he was stopped.
The plan to return the car late and driving a drug corridor could apply to a number of people using I-95 for "perfectly legitimate purposes," the judges noted.
"This suggests the true reason Edwards chose to detain Boyce was because Boyce would not consent to a search of his car," the ruling said.
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