As has been discussed in prior posts on this blog, police officers who stop and search individuals in their vehicles, on the street, or in their homes must have probable cause for such a search and seizure. They cannot simply stop individuals at a whim and require that they open up their property and homes to officers. Instead, they must have a legitimate basis for believing that a crime may have occurred that justifies further investigation. But what happens when an initial stop is supported by probable cause, but the search expands to other individuals, other property, or a longer period of time? These types of searches may also be unconstitutional if they are not sufficiently limited in scope and duration. A recent case before the Fourth Circuit addressed whether West Virginia police officers exceeded the appropriate scope during a routine traffic stop.
In United States v. White, West Virginia officers stopped the vehicle of Erica Tuenis after she was observed swerving across lanes while on the road. Mr. White was a passenger in the vehicle when it was stopped. When the officer approached Ms. Tuenis’ vehicle, he noticed an odor of marijuana. The officer asked Ms. Tuenis to exit the vehicle and, after talking with her, determined that she was not impaired or intoxicated. He asked her if she had been smoking marijuana, and she said no, but she did not know if her passengers had been. The officer returned to the vehicle and asked to speak with Mr. White. Mr. White denied having any marijuana in his vehicle, and the officer asked him to step out of the car briefly. After Mr. White exited the car, the officer observed a firearm tucked into the side of the passenger seat. He called for backup and arrested Mr. White. After being read his Miranda rights, Mr. White admitted that the firearm was his. He was later charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm because he had several prior burglary convictions.