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Cops Can't Stop Vehicle Based on Proximity to Suspected Meth Lab

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

While peers can judge you by the company you keep, do the cops have probable cause to stop a vehicle just because it was a leaving a cabin that may have been a meth lab?

Last week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that police may not stop a vehicle only because it emerged from a site suspected of drug activity.

Lincoln County Sheriff's Department Sergeant Brian Kingsley was surveilling a rural Wisconsin cabin in 2009 after receiving information from a drug maker-turned-informant about a meth operation at the cabin, reports Courthouse News Service. After accidentally honking his horn in front of the cabin, Kingsley saw a car drive down driveway, and then return to the cabin without leaving the property. He thought it was suspicious. Five minutes later, Kingsley stopped a vehicle that exited the cabin property. He frankly conceded that he did not observe any traffic violations before the stop.

While speaking with Daniel Bohman and Jake Barttelt, the stopped car's occupants, Kingsley smelled the distinctive odor of anhydrous ammonia. Kingsley -- a veteran officer with over 17 years of experience and approximately 40 meth lab busts -- can distinguish between household ammonia (often diluted in cleaners) and anhydrous ammonia (used legitimately as a fertilizer but also in cooking meth) because of the latter's noticeably more pungent odor and the burning sensation it causes in his mouth and nose.

A subsequent search of the cabin -- authorized by an issued warrant, based in part on information learned during Kingsley's stop-and-sniff -- confirmed that it was indeed a meth lab.

Bohman challenged the stop, and argued that if the stop was unreasonable, then anything obtained during the stop should be suppressed and the cabin search would be fruit from that poisonous tree. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the evidence from the stop must be suppressed, but declined to address whether the evidence discovered in the cabin should be suppressed.

A mere suspicion of illegal activity at a particular place is not enough to transfer that suspicion to anyone who leaves that property. While the court didn't question that Kingsley acted in good faith, it noted a lack of jurisprudence in which the good faith exception applied to a lack of reasonable suspicion. Here, the appellate court found that Kingsley's stop wasn't based on reasonable suspicion, it was based on a hunch, (albeit a correct hunch), so the evidence must be suppressed.

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