Felonies dismissed as court ruling trickles down

The Island County prosecutor was forced to dismiss felony charges against four people because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.

The ruling will likely affect many misdemeanor cases, as well as the caseloads for police and prosecutors in the future.

“The reality is that a lot of guns and drugs won’t be found,” Prosecutor Greg Banks said.

Banks said Arizona v. Gant was a landmark case because it changes a long-standing practice for police in searching cars after an occupant is arrested.

In compliance with a 1981 Supreme Court case, police used to routinely search the compartment of a car after arresting an occupant. The reasoning for the search, as laid out by the high court, was to remove any weapons that the arrested person may brandish against the officer or to prevent the suspect from destroying evidence.

But in the recent case, the justices ruled 9-0 that this reasoning was faulty if the person being arrested was handcuffed or secured in a police car.

In other words, Banks said, the police normally can’t perform a warrantless car search “incident to arrest” unless the officer has a reason to believe that evidence related to the offense of arrest is in the car or if the suspect can reach into the car.

Of course, the officers can still apply for a search warrant whenever they feel it’s necessary to search a vehicle. Or they can ask permission to search the car.

Defense attorneys are pleased with the ruling.

“There’s no question it’s a landmark decision for defense, but the reality is that it’s a practical one as well,” said Coupeville attorney Darrin Hall, pointing out that the original reasoning for the warrantless searches simply didn’t make sense.

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown, who was a state trooper for 26 years, said he’s made many dozens of felony arrests over the years based on searches incident to arrest. Many of those times, he arrested a driver for driving without a license and ended up finding illegal guns or drugs in the car.

Undersheriff Kelly Mauck predicts that the ruling won’t diminish the workload for officers because they’ll probably apply for more warrants in the future.

Oak Harbor Police Chief Rick Wallace said the decision likely will result in fewer arrests in the future, but he doesn’t think the change will be great.

“It’s one less tool the officers have in their toolbox,” he said, “but I don’t see it completely hamstringing us.”

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