Walking out of a hotel in a high crime area does not give police the right to detain a person suspected of selling drugs, the Idaho Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.
A three-member panel overturned the conviction of Natasha L. Bly, 31, who was convicted in 2014 of possessing a controlled substance. She was found with methamphetamine after Nampa police stopped her, saying she displayed odd behavior.
Police were investigating reports of significant drug activity taking place at hotels near downtown Nampa, according to court documents. While patrolling the area, an officer ran the license plate of a car parked at one of the hotels. It came back showing the owner had an active warrant for a drug offense.
The officer went inside the hotel but was unable to locate the owner. Later, he saw three women pull in, go inside the hotel for a few minutes and then leave. He suspected they may have purchased drugs, but did not question them, according to court documents.
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Later, the officer saw Bly leave the hotel and go to the car he had been watching. The woman got in and out of the car several times before driving the car from where it was parked to another side of the parking lot. The woman, later identified as Bly, parked the car, got out, went inside the hotel and immediately came back out. The officer approached Bly and told her to “hold on a minute,” according to court documents.
While speaking with her, the officer noticed Bly smelled like burned marijuana, had blisters on her tongue consistent with someone who has smoked marijuana and had bloodshot eyes and spoke with slurred speech, according to court documents. Bly was taken into custody, and during a search the officer found methamphetamine on her.
At trial,the defense argued that the evidence should be suppressed because Bly was illegally detained. Canyon County District Judge George Southworth ruled that Bly was detained when the officer called her over but that the detention was reasonable.
Bly then entered a conditional plea of guilty, but reserved the right to appeal. She was placed on probation.
In response to the appeal, the state argued that Bly was in a high drug-crime area, there was other activity taking place in the area consistent with a drug transaction, she drove a car belonging to a suspect with an active warrant and she exhibited “strange behavior” by getting into and out of the car and then driving it to a different spot in the same parking lot.
The state also suggested that the officer, trained in drug interaction, was justified in his suspicion that criminal activity was taking place based on the combination of circumstances.
The appeals panel judges, John Melanson, Sergio A. Gutierrez and Molly J. Huskey, disagreed.
“Bly argues, and we agree, that none of these facts, when considered independently, would be sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion particularized to her. Bly’s presence in a high-crime area, without more, is insufficient,” Gutierrez wrote in the six-page decision.
The court found that none of the circumstances preceding the officer’s detention of Bly justified his suspicion that she was involved in criminal activity. The officer did not connect Bly to the women he believed came to the hotel for suspected drug activity. Nor did he have any reasonable basis for concluding that Bly’s strange behavior meant she was about to commit a crime or had already, the judges ruled.