FAIRBANKS - An Alaska State Trooper improperly searched a Tok man subsequently convicted of drug possession, the Alaska Court of Appeals ruled.
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The judges ordered a hearing in Superior Court to determine whether the drugs that led to the conviction of Joseph P. Erickson, 26, would have been found without the initial pat-down search.
Erickson's case is the second recent case in which the Appeals Court ruled that a search was improper and comes as the Alaska Supreme Court grapples with when law enforcement officers can search people for weapons.
Erickson was a passenger in a vehicle stopped about 4 a.m. on Feb. 15, 2004, by Trooper Joseph Hazelaar for having no front license plate. Neither Erickson nor the driver wore seat belts.
During questioning, Erickson identified himself as "Chris" and gave a false birth date. Hazelaar could not locate his claimed identity in the Alaska Public Safety Information Network.
Trooper Hazelaar asked Erickson to step out of the vehicle and frisked him for weapons. According to court records, he performed the search because it was late, Hazelaar was alone, Erickson seemed nervous, the driver of the vehicle was a convicted felon and because Hazelaar suspected Erickson had given him a false name.
Hazelaar found an identification card on Erickson.
He handcuffed him and a further search found marijuana and a pipe with methamphetamine residue. The trooper also suspected Erickson had cast aside a bag containing methamphetamine that was found in snow beside the vehicle's passenger-side door.
A court-ordered search of Erickson's hotel room yielded more methamphetamine.
Erickson was charged with counts of misconduct involving a controlled substance and making a false report. A jury convicted him for the marijuana and the methamphetamine in the black bag but acquitted him for the methamphetamine in the hotel room.
Erickson appealed, claiming the initial pat-down search was improper and that all of the drug evidence should be thrown out.
The Court of Appeals ruled that Trooper Hazelaar was within his authority to ask Erickson to step out of the vehicle but had insufficient cause to frisk Erickson for weapons.
"There was simply nothing about the circumstances surrounding the offenses that Trooper Hazelaar was investigating that would indicate that Erickson might be armed and dangerous," the opinion said. "Our concern is that unless strictly regulated by the courts, pat-down searches may be used as a pretext to conduct a search for evidence."
The decision comes on the heels of another case on appeal in which a pat-down search led to a drug conviction. That case, Adams v. State, is under consideration by the Alaska Supreme Court.
In arguments before the panel in March, an attorney for the state held that people hanging around high crime areas who act suspiciously may be searched for weapons.
A public defender argued that police officers should have a reason to believe a crime is taking place or that their safety is in peril before patting someone down.
Fairbanks Police Sgt. Eric Jewkes, who trains officers on various aspects of police work, including when to search, said there are many variables when dealing with people and circumstances.
He advises officers to frisk people if the officers' instincts tell them they are in danger. It's not always easy to articulate in court why an officer felt threatened, Jewkes said.
"Human beings, just like any other animals, have that instinctive trait that something just doesn't seem right," the sergeant said. "You have to trust that. As long as the officers are going out there and doing these searches for the right reasons, that they are concerned for their safety, then that's the goal."
Courts' evaluating police conduct is not a bad thing, Jewkes said.
"That's the whole system of checks and balances," he said. "In the scheme of things, probably we would be concerned if the courts never ruled against police."
Information from: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com