LIBERTY — A Casey County man charged with trafficking in marijuana and driving under the influence in 2009 will likely have his case dismissed after the state Supreme Court ruled that the evidence against him was gathered during an illegal road block conducted by Liberty police.
In a ruling handed down Thursday, the high court reversed the Court of Appeals and ruled that the evidence against Joseph S. Singleton should be suppressed from trial because it was obtained during a checkpoint set up with the intention of checking motorists for city stickers. Such a road block violates the Fourth Amendment prohibition against illegal search and seizure because its intent was unrelated to border security or public safety, the two areas the U.S. Supreme Court has established for legitimate road blocks.
“The checkpoint’s only purpose was to enforce a revenue-raising ordinance upon vehicles in the city,” the ruling states. “Thus, the checkpoint to enforce the sticker ordinance comports with none of the purposes which the U.S. Supreme Court has found to be important enough to override the individual liberty interests secured by the Fourth Amendment.”
According to court documents, Liberty police decided to set up the road block based on complaints that several teachers had not purchased the $10 city stickers required of everyone who lives or works within city limits.
When Singleton was stopped at the checkpoint on Ky. 70 near the high school campus, it was determined that he was not in violation of the city sticker ordinance but officers detected the aroma of marijuana coming from his truck. Singleton was issued a field sobriety test and a warrantless search was conducted on his truck, during which a partially smoked joint, a bag of pot, hand scales and plastic baggies were recovered, court records state.
As the case moved along in court, Singleton’s attorney, Ted Lavit of Lebanon, argued that the evidence should be suppressed because it was obtaining during an illegal road block. Casey Circuit Judge James Weddle, who died earlier this month, agreed and said the evidence could not be used at trial.
“Judge Weddle had it absolutely right that this thing was so far afield of the law and common sense,” Lavit said Friday.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Wright appealed Weddle’s ruling through the state Attorney General’s office. The Court of Appeals struck down Weddle’s decision based on the reasoning that checking for city stickers at a road block is akin to checking for driver’s licenses and registration, which is permitted.
Lavit appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, where his associate, Casey County native Cameron Griffin, made oral arguments in November.
Along with ruling that the city sticker checkpoint was outside the legal parameters for road blocks, the high court’s unanimous 14-page opinion suggested the police could have used other methods of checking for city sticker scofflaws.
“We also recall that the initial concern that sparked the need for the checkpoint was the report that some teachers had failed to pay the sticker fee,” the opinion states. “That concern could have been addressed by means far less intrusive than a traffic checkpoint. For example, police officers could have simply walked through the school parking lot and cited cars without a sticker.”
Lavit said he will request the case against Singleton be dismissed on May 14 and also request that Singleton’s 2007 GMC pickup truck, which was confiscated by police, be returned to him.
Wright, the prosecutor, said, “All the evidence has been suppressed. We don’t have anything else, so the case will probably be dismissed.”
Wright said there remains a possibility, however, that the AG’s office might ask the state Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling and, if that fails, petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case on behalf of the League of Cities, which represents cities across the state that might want to use road blocks to enforce their city sticker ordinances.