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South Carolina drug charges raise questions about legal searches

Drug-related charges often stem from a simple traffic stop. If a person is stopped for speeding or a broken tail light, police may find probable cause to conduct a search of the vehicle. If police find drug evidence, charges will likely result. However, the stop, search and seizure must all be conducted in accord with law. An ongoing South Carolina drug crimes case, however, is putting these procedures under the microscope.

In 2009, a South Carolina driver was pulled over for failing to use a signal to change lanes. Police pulled him over and found drugs in the vehicle that belonged to his passenger. Eventually, the man was convicted for heroin possession, but the drug charges were appealed based on a Supreme Court ruling that limited the use of warrentless GPS data. The man's appeal is in progress, and his defense team is trying to restrict evidence used by prosecutors.

One aspect of this case that isn't up for debate is the traffic stop. Even thought the stop is considered to be legal, the evidence acquired in the subsequent search has been called into question. Police would never have been there to pull the driver over if they didn't have GPS data. Because the U.S. Supreme Court has restricted the ability to warrantless tracking data, it follows that the evidence was acquired on shaky legal grounds.

Knowing the implications of the information used to conduct the traffic stop, the hope is that the man's appeal will continue without the evidence that "flowed from the illegal use of the GPS device." Without the drug evidence, the prosecution's trial may not stand.

Police must follow the Constitution at all times. Many people may not be able to recognize whether or not their rights were upheld before, during and after being arrested without trustworthy legal guidance, so it's important that these liberties are protected.

Source: The BLT, “In Fourth Circuit, a Spotlight on Warrantless GPS Tracking, Mike Scarcella, May 24, 2013

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