The smell of alcohol alone is not enough evidence for police to search your vehicle, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The court made that ruling in overturning the conviction of Robert Stevenson, who had been found guilty of methamphetamine possession in Sedgwick County District Court.
In a 2008 case, police found drug paraphernalia and a small amount of meth when they searched Stevenson and his 2001 Chevrolet Blazer, after stopping him for failing to signal a turn 100 feet before the corner, court record said.
The officers’ justification for the search, conducted without a warrant, was the strong smell of alcohol wafting from inside Stevenson’s vehicle.
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Stevenson himself passed a sobriety test, but officers searched his vehicle anyway on suspicion that he had violated the state law that regulates carrying of open containers of alcohol.
The officers found that the smell came from wine that had leaked from a bottle on the back seat.
The court found that wasn’t enough to justify a search because the alcohol smell could have come from anywhere inside the vehicle. The court noted it is legal to carry an open container in the trunk of a car, or in Stevenson’s case, behind the back seat of a sport-utility vehicle.
The laws regulating alcohol are different than those governing marijuana, an illegal product where the smell always indicates evidence of illegal activity, the court noted.
“Accordingly, it would not be enough for the officers to believe that there was a fair probability they would find alcohol in Stevenson's vehicle,” said the court opinion, delivered by Justice Lee A. Johnson. “Rather, they had to reasonably believe that Stevenson had unlawfully transported any alcohol that might be found in the vehicle.”
The Supreme Court ruled the search unreasonable and unlawful and overturned Stevenson’s drug conviction, sending the case back to the District Court for a possible retrial with instructions to exclude any evidence found in the illegal search.