Court dumps drug convictions based on courthouse search

George Daniel Snow must have been in a real hurry to get to court on that day in March 2009. He simply forgot to leave his methamphetamine at home.

When he arrived at the courthouse he found signs posted informing him that upon entering the courthouse he would be subject to a security search. He would also have to pass through a metal detector and have his personal property x-rayed. All this, sadly, was not enough to trigger his memory that the cigarette box in his pocket was stuffed with methamphetamine in "little white cellophane packages."

In his hurry to conduct his important court-related affairs he entered the courthouse, submitted to the security search and was promptly arrested when his stash was located by the sheriff's deputy at the door.

Mr. Snow was convicted of possession and delivery of a methamphetamine based on the theory that he possessed the methamphetamine with the intent to distribute it to others - presumably, after he was done in court that day. He and his lawyer moved the court to suppress the seized methamphetamine on the grounds that the courthouse security search was an unreasonable and warrantless search under the Oregon Constitution. The trial court disagreed with Mr. Snow on the ground that the search was a valid and lawful administrative search of his person as part of a valid courthouse security policy.

Today, the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed and tossed Mr. Snow's conviction. The Court ruled that the courthouse security search policy which had ensnared the unfortunate Mr. Snow was not valid because it invested those performing the searches with too much discretion in deciding who or what items to search. Nor did the government prove that Mr. Snow gave his implied consent to the search as a condition of his entry into the courthouse.

Because the security search itself was unlawful, the choice between whether to submit to it or not enter the courthouse was itself not a choice between legal alternatives. Thus, no consent on the part of Mr. Snow could be inferred.

Courthouses throughout the state of Oregon have adopted a variety of security protocols involving the scanning and searching of citizens entering to conduct their business there. To be valid, these types of searches must meet five well-known legal criteria. Routine familiarity with these types of searches and seizures as well as the law under which they are purportedly authorized often leads to complacency in their acceptance as lawful. Mr. Snow can't have been the first forgetful defendant to have his stash seized on the courthouse steps. Experienced and aggressive criminal defensel Lawyering can often make the difference between a conviction and acquittal.

In his hurry to celebrate his victory one hopes Mr. Snow gives some pause to think prior to returning to the courthouse to retrieve his unlawfully seized stash.


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