Miller v. Arkansas: Criminals Beware! Arkansas Uses an Objective Approach in Evaluating Pretextual Traffic Stops - Jason Watson

JurisdictionArkansas,United States
Publication year1995
CitationVol. 46 No. 4

Miller v. Arkansas: Criminals Beware! Arkansas Uses an Objective Approach in Evaluating Pretextual Traffic Stops

In Miller v. Arkansas,1 the Arkansas Court of Appeals had to decide whether an officer's subjective intent would make an otherwise legitimate traffic stop and ensuing search pretextual.2 In December 1991, a confidential informant told Arkansas state police officer Roger Ahlf that Roger Miller was a cocaine dealer and was driving a black van on a suspended driver's license.3 After verifying this information, Officer Ahlf stopped Miller for driving on a suspended license.4 Ahlf then frisked Miller for weapons. During the frisk, the officer found an address book that contained less than 1.5 grams of marijuana residue.5 The officer took Miller into custody and upon searching his van found a plastic bag of cocaine.6 In a pretrial motion, Miller moved to suppress the evidence claiming his arrest was pretextual.7 At the suppression hearing, the officer admitted that he normally did not work traffic duty and stopped Miller only in the hope of finding drugs.8 The trial court denied Miller's motion, holding that although the officer may have had additional motives, the evidence did not establish that he would not have arrested Miller absent the interest in searching for drugs.9 After the trial court denied the motion, Miller entered a conditional plea of guilty.^" Miller appealed to the Arkansas Court of Appeals, claiming that the trial court erred in not suppressing the evidence obtained at the arrest." The court of appeals affirmed the lower court, holding that a court is to test police searches under an objective standard without regard to the subjective intent of the officer involved.12

To better understand the court of appeals position, a consideration of the evolution of the law of pretextual arrests is beneficial. "A pretext arrest only arises when the surrounding circumstances show that the arrest is only a sham being used as an excuse for making a search for evidence of a different and more serious offense for which no probable cause to arrest exists."13 When first confronted with this issue, the Supreme Court held "an arrest may not be used as a pretext to search for evidence."14 Further, the Court in United States v. Rabinowitz15 forbade general exploratory searches with or without a search warrant.16 In Rabinowitz, government officers went to the defendant's place of business, and arrested him pursuant to an arrest warrant.17 Over the defendant's objection, the officers searched his desk, safe, and file cabinets, and found incriminating evidence.18 The trial court denied the defendant's motions to suppress the evidence, and subsequently convicted him.19 The court of appeals reversed, and the Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals.20 The Court held that the validity of searches made incident to an surest without a warrant are dependent on the validity of the initial arrest.21 The Court elaborated that to determine whether a search made after an otherwise lawful arrest is legal, a court is to look at the facts and circumstances of each particular case.22 The Court reasoned that since the officers had probable cause to search, the search was not a general exploratory search; therefore, the officers validly obtained the evidence used to convict the defendant.23 Along with the Supreme Court, other courts have also addressed this issue.24 In Taglavore v. United States,25 the Ninth Circuit found that although a person arrested may be searched incident to a valid arrest, the search must be incident to the arrest and not vice versa.26 "[When] the arrest is only a sham or a front being used as an excuse for making a search, the arrest itself and the ensuing search are illegal."27 The Fifth Circuit has expanded this concept by holding the lawfulness of an arrest does not always make a search legitimate.28 Instead, the search must be related to the nature and purpose of the arrest.29 Subsequently, in United States v. Robinson30 Justice Rehnquist, writing for the majority, set forth two distinct exceptions to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment: first, a search may be made of a person by virtue of being arrested; and second, a search may be made of the area within the control of the person arrested.31 Justice Rehnquist quoted then Judge Cardozo of the New York Court of Appeals:

The basic principle is this: Search of the person is unlawful when the seizure of the body is a trespass, and the purpose of the search is to discover grounds as yet unknown for arrest or accusation (citations omitted). Search of a person becomes lawful when grounds for arrest and accusation have been discovered, and the law is in the act of subjecting the body of the accused to its physical dominion.32

Later, in Scott v. United States,33 the Supreme Court held that to evaluate alleged violations of the Fourth Amendment, courts must objectively assess the "officer's actions in light of the facts and circumstances then known to him."^'' 34 "The fact that the officer does not have the state of mind which is hypothecated by the reasons which provide the legal justification for the officer's action does not invalidate the action taken as long as the circumstances, viewed objectively, justify the action."35 The Court reasoned that subjective intent alone cannot make lawful conduct illegal or unconstitutional.36 Since then, the Court has expanded this reasoning to include the use of an objective standard stating, "evenhanded law enforcement is best achieved by the application of objective standards of conduct, rather than standards that depend upon the subjective state of mind of the officer."37 The United States appellate courts have followed the Supreme Court's lead in establishing an objective standard.38 Moreover, many state courts have adopted the objective analysis expressed in Scott.39 Finally, courts are employing a "but for" approach in objectively analyzing pretextual arrests; that is, "would the arrest not have occurred but for the other, typically more serious, crime."40 A court must determine if the officer would nonetheless have made the arrest without the covert motive.41

In Miller, the Arkansas Court of Appeals used the objective approach to evaluate whether the search was pretextual.42 Following Arkansas Supreme Court...

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