Ohio's Strict Limitation On Consent Searches Overturned

January 18, 1997

The Ohio Supreme Court has been given
a message, and perhaps, a warning.

In recent years, the Ohio Supreme Court has handed down some stern rulings on motor vehicle searches. A few of those decisions set stricter standards than the ones created by the United States Supreme Court. Although the Ohio Constitution may be interpreted to establish stricter standards, Ohio's high court recently learned that it may not use the United States Constitution to create rules more rigid than those announced by the nation's highest court.

Ohio's new trend toward limiting vehicle searches began with State v. Brown (April 8, 1992). More than ten years before, the United States Supreme Court had decided New York v. Belton, which established the clear and simple rule that a police officer could conduct a full warrantless search of a vehicle's passenger compartment, including closed containers, if the vehicle's occupant has been placed under arrest. The Ohio Supreme Court apparently believed that rule was too broad, so in State v. Brown, it held that police officers may not search small, closed containers in a motor vehicle after the vehicle's lone occupant has been arrested and placed in the police cruiser. That decision was particularly disturbing because the facts in State v. Brown were almost identical to those in New York v. Belton!

It seemed that this higher standard for vehicle searches was contrary to the law announced by the highest court in the land. But the Ohio Supreme Court found one saving grace: in a footnote, it remarked that the state constitution could be used to create stricter rules.

This same trend continued in State v. Robinette (September 6, 1995). In that case, the police officer had stopped the suspect for a traffic violation. After issuing a warning, the officer asked the suspect for consent to search his vehicle. The suspect consented to the search, and the officer eventually found illegal drugs.

Basing it decision on both the state constitution and the federal constitution, the Ohio Supreme Court held that the officer should have told the suspect that he was free to leave before asking for consent to search. That decision was appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The high court surprised the criminal defense community by overturning the Ohio decision. It was the opinion of the Chief Justice, joined by seven of the other eight justices, that a suspect can voluntarily consent to a search without being told he or she is "free to go." And because the Ohio court had supported it decision with the federal constitution, as well as the state constitution, the federal court was free to reverse that decision.

The Robinette case will be returned to the Ohio Supreme Court for further proceedings, and at that time, the court may still decide that its decision was supported by the Ohio Constitution alone. However, the Ohio Supreme Court has been given a message, and perhaps, a warning. The message? If Ohio wishes to have stricter search and seizure rules, those rules must be based only on the Ohio Constitution. The warning? The laws of search and seizure are intended to be reasonable, and Ohio's strict new rules may no longer qualify!

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