Darryl A. Goldberg
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Is drug-related evidence secured during a random bus search admissible?

You don't have to be a constitutional law scholar to know that law enforcement officials couldn't legally conduct a search of hundreds of homes in an attempt to uncover evidence of some suspected criminal activity. Indeed, as ridiculous as this premise may sound, it was actually playing out in one Texas town, albeit to transit passengers, where police officers were essentially using a local gas station as a checkpoint to conduct random drug searches of passenger buses traveling through the area.

These tactics came to light in a recent decision by a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas to suppress evidence gathered against a man indicted in a federal cocaine distribution case.

According to the facts, the man (i.e., the defendant) boarded a bus in Houston bound for Chicago back in 2011. Sometime along the way, the bus pulled over at a gas station located in Conroe, Texas, which city police officers used as a makeshift checkpoint to conduct drug searches.

The officers came aboard the bus and proceeded to ask passengers for permission to search their bags. During these efforts, they saw a backpack secured by a padlock sitting on the luggage rack above the defendant, and removed it for search after neither he nor any other passenger claimed ownership.

The backpack was taken outside by officers, where the lock was removed with bolt cutters and 8.8 kilos of cocaine discovered inside. The officers re-boarded the bus and, after seeing the defendant had a lanyard with several keys, took it and found that one key matched the padlock.

The defendant was ultimately charged with intent to distribute and pleaded no contest. Given his background and status as a first-time offender, he was sentenced to 90 days in jail with 10 years of deferred adjudication.

However, he was subsequently indicted as part of the aforementioned federal cocaine distribution case, in which federal prosecutors sought to introduce the seized 8.8 kilos as evidence.

In granting the motion to suppress this evidence, the federal judge argued that the police officers had, in effect, established a checkpoint -- a forced interaction with law enforcement -- at the gas station and that, in general, checkpoints were only constitutionally permissible to investigate specific crimes.

Furthermore, the order to suppress also discusses how the Supreme Court of the United States expressly held in a 2000 case, City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, that checkpoints established for the sole purpose of conducting drug searches violated the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. As such, the officers' stop of the bus and subsequent searches were indeed unconstitutional.

"This tactic [of conducting sweeping and non-individualized searches of bus passengers] is one of many used by the government to fight its 'war on drugs.' During its forty-five years, the principal casualty of this war has been the Constitution. This stop offends the Constitution," reads the order.

This case perhaps helps demonstrate how important it is for those facing serious drug charges to consider speaking with a skilled legal professional who can work to uncover any and all instances of police misconduct and/or constitutional violations as soon as possible. 

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Darryl A. Goldberg
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