Court Tosses Evidence From Unlawful Search

     (CN) – Drugs found under a barbecue grill by undercover agents after they noticed a man acting suspiciously should not have been admitted into evidence at his trial, a Louisiana appeals court ruled.
     On the night of Oct. 27, 2010, undercover officers assigned to the Terrebonne Parish Narcotics Task Force were patrolling the Daniel Turner Trailer Park, a known high-crime area in Houma, Louisiana, when they encountered Michael Moultrie, who was standing in the middle of the street.
     Moultrie walked away from the officers, and then returned to where he had been standing.
     The officers pulled their cruiser between Moultrie and the location of the nearest trailer. One officer approached Moultrie and began to question him, while two others walked up the driveway leading to the trailer.
     Within a few steps, they came upon a barbecue grill that had a lid sitting at an angle. One agent later said he noticed “disturbed” dew on the grill handle.
     His suspicions piqued, the agent lifted the grill lid and found two ounces of crack cocaine. Packaged for sale, the drugs had a street value of approximately $10,000.
     After his arrest, Moultrie allegedly said the grill belonged to his family but he knew nothing about the drugs.
     The trial court denied his motion to suppress the drug evidence, and Moultrie was convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.
     Moultrie was also judged to be a second-felony habitual offender and was sentenced to 20 years in prison at hard labor.
     On appeal, Moultrie argued that the police violated his Fourth Amendment rights by discovering the drugs without a search warrant.
     The Baton-Rouge based First Circuit Louisiana Court of Appeals overturned the decision after first noting that the officers were justified in searching the area for contraband.
     “The trailer park where the stop occurred was well-known to the agents for its high rate of drug crimes and shootings,” Judge William Crain wrote on the court’s behalf. “That, coupled with the darkness of night and defendant’s suspicious disappearance and reappearance, justified the agents scanning the area for contraband.”
     However, Crain disagreed with the trial judge’s statement that “If I had been a policeman on the scene that night, I would have been concerned that there was a weapon in that barbecue pit within reach of that defendant.”
     Crain stated that the agents’ testimony showed that they detained Moultrie in the street, about 30 feet from the grill.
     “The agents did not develop probable cause to search the closed grill or to arrest the defendant until after the grill was opened,” Crain wrote. “Consequently, the warrantless search was not justified by the exigent circumstances exception.”
     Judge J. Michael McDonald dissented from his colleagues, noting that Moultrie did not live at the house and that he was “clearly not the owner of the grill.”
     McDonald stated that the search was valid.
     “The homeowner’s privacy was not violated and no property of the homeowner was seized,” he said.

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