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Drug charges after auto stop raises constitutional issues

Defense counsel in New Hampshire and elsewhere will pay special attention to the circumstances of a traffic stop that leads to a drug arrest. There are several constitutional principles that come into play in that situation, and it is not usually crystal clear whether a violation by the police was committed. Such a constitutional violation, however, could lead to the suppression of seized contraband and ultimately to the dismissal of the drug charges.

On Interstate 95 recently, a traffic stop by state police led to the arrest of two male occupants of a vehicle for possession with intent to distribute cocaine. The news article does not give enough details to determine whether a question of search propriety can be raised in defense of the arrest. However, some of the reported facts at least raise suspicions that each defendant's counsel will likely investigate further.

The report does not indicate what the traffic violation was that prompted the state trooper to stop the vehicle. Reportedly, after the stop the driver consented to a search. Further, it is reported that a state police dog found an illegal odor inside the vehicle console and dashboard area, which may include the glove compartment (but that is unclear).

Authorities found what they allege to be four packages totaling 130 grams of cocaine. An initial evaluation of the facts generally raises concern why the police asked to search the vehicle in the first place. With the alleged drugs hidden in a console, that would leave little room to claim probable cause for a search. Consensual searches are not usually performed without suspicion of criminality.

It is that reasonable suspicion of criminal behavior that allows the police to move beyond the initial stop. In addition, the passenger here may have a defense to the drug charges with respect to control and possession of the alleged drugs. Presumably, the drugs were under the control of the driver, who had access to the console and glove compartment area. Pursuant to federal and New Hampshire law, the person who controls the drugs is alone criminally responsible, absent direct evidence of guilt against other persons.

Source:, "Traffic stop leads to cocaine arrest", Dec. 23, 2016

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