Open container violations are often a police officer’s gateway into conducting a warrantless search of a motor vehicle. And once inside the car, any other contraband discovered by the officer–including illegal drugs–may be used as evidence against the vehicle’s driver or passengers. This is why it is important to always remember you have the right not to answer questions posed by a police officer, especially with respect to whether there may be open containers of alcohol in the car.
Suspected “Illegal Dumping” Turns Into Felony Drug Possession Case
Here is yet another cautionary tale on this point. In a recent case from Corpus Christi, Ploeger v. State, a police officer was patrolling a road he knew from experience to be an “illegal dumping site.” That is to say, people were illegally depositing trash on the roadway.
Around 12:30 a.m. on the day in question, the officer said he “observed a black SUV driving slowly down the road and braking frequently.” The officer said he took this as a sign the driver was looking for somewhere to make an illegal trash dump. Although the officer did not actually witness any dumping–or see the driver commit any traffic violations–he still decided to pull the vehicle over.
The vehicle contained a driver and a passenger, the former of whom is the defendant in this case. A second officer arrived at the scene and asked the passenger if there were “any open containers of alcohol” in the car. He replied there was. This prompted the officers to conduct a search of the vehicle, which uncovered illegal narcotics. The police arrested both occupants. Later, police found additional illegal drugs on the defendant’s person as he was processed at the local jail.
Prosecutors subsequently charged the defendant with third-degree felony possession of a controlled substance in a correctional facility. At trial, the defendant argued the drug evidence was inadmissible, as the officer never had probable cause to pull the vehicle over in the first place. Both the trial court, and later the court of appeals, rejected this argument. As the appeals court explained, the officer had formed “reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot,” i.e., possible illegal dumping of trash.
More to the point, the officer indisputably had probable cause to conduct a warrantless search once the passenger admitted there was an open container of alcohol in the vehicle. The trial judge also pointed out the defendant “admitted to having used narcotics with the Defendant” earlier in the evening of the arrest. This was enough to give the police “probable cause to search the vehicle for open containers, which led to discovery of other contraband.”
Speak with a Houston Open Container Violations Lawyer Today
When questioned by the police, the best thing you can do is say nothing. Even something as minor as acknowledging a possible open-container violation can end up landing you in much more serious legal trouble. An experienced Houston criminal defense attorney can advise you further based on the facts of your particular situation. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Galveston or League City today if you need to speak with a DWI attorney right away.