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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > February 2013 > State v. Vaughn, Second District Court of Appeals (Champaign, Clark, Darke, Greene, Miami, Montgomer

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State v. Vaughn, Second District Court of Appeals (Champaign, Clark, Darke, Greene, Miami, Montgomery), Dec. 31, 2012

Question: Can a peace officer search a suspect without probable cause when another officer present has probable cause to do so?
Quick Answer: No, unless the officer with probable cause ordered the search or communicated his knowledge to the searching officer.

Facts: Police received an anonymous tip that suspect Latasha Vaughn was selling drugs in her home, so an officer drove to Vaughn’s home. The officer knew drugs were prevalent in Vaughn’s neighborhood, and he had arrested others for drug possession after they had left Vaughn’s house. He watched as a car pulled up to the house and honked three times. Vaughn and another woman came outside, got into the car, and it drove away. The officer followed the vehicle and made a traffic stop. A second officer arrived and assisted in making the stop. The officers based the stop on a city ordinance that prohibits honking a car horn for any reason other than to warn of danger.
The first officer asked Vaughn for an ID while the second officer spoke with the driver. Noticing a wad of money in Vaughn’s sweatshirt pocket, the first officer asked Vaughn to step out of the car. He watched Vaughn press her hand against her shirt pocket as she stepped out of the vehicle, concealing the wad of money. The first officer alerted the second officer about the wad of money. Vaughn heard this and pulled out the money, showing both officers that it was 11 one-dollar bills rolled up together. The second officer then saw a plastic sandwich bag, knotted at the top, sticking out of her shirt pocket. He knew that drugs often are packaged in plastic bags, so he asked her about it. Vaughn told the second officer that the bag was nothing, and she started to go for her shirt pocket again. The second officer grabbed Vaughn’s hand and reached into her pocket to grab the bag, which contained crack cocaine. She was arrested and later filed a motion to suppress based on an unreasonable search.
Why this case is important: The court held that, from looking at the totality of the circumstances, the second officer had no probable cause to believe that the bag in Vaughn’s sweatshirt pocket contained drugs. It was the first officer who knew about several tips that Vaughn sold drugs and that drugs were common in the neighborhood. The first officer also had arrested individuals for drug possession after they had left Vaughn’s home. But there was no evidence that the second officer knew this information.
The second officer knew he was responding to a call of suspicious drug activity, knew about Vaughn’s wad of money, and saw the plastic bag, but the court determined that those facts didn’t support probable cause that the bag contained drugs. Because the first officer never communicated his knowledge to the second officer or ordered the second officer to remove the bag from Vaughn’s pocket, the second officer’s actions weren’t supported by probable cause.
The second officer also wasn’t justified in reaching into Vaughn’s pocket on the basis of officer safety, based on these facts, because Vaughn had already reached into her pocket once to retrieve the money, and the officer didn’t initiate a pat-down at that time.

Keep in mind: It’s important to communicate with other officers when responding to dispatch calls, when practical, because another officer may have information you need to secure probable cause to search. However, don’t forget that probable cause may be assumed between law enforcement officers when one peace officer has probable cause but orders another officer to conduct a search.

Visit the Second District Court of Appeals website to view the entire opinion.