OUT-OF-STATE PLATES: EXPECT INCREASED SCRUTINY ON I-80 THROUGH NEBRASKA
Connecting San Francisco with New York, Interstate 80 runs through Nebraska. With varying marijuana laws in place across the country, law enforcement agencies have labeled the Interstate a drug corridor.
Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana in 2013. California and Oregon have allowed medical marijuana for many years. New Hampshire just passed legislation allowing medical marijuana joining five other New England states and New Jersey with similar laws.
However, it is against the law to possess marijuana in Nebraska. In the month of July 2013, several traffic stops along I-80 have resulted in marijuana arrests. At the beginning of the July 2013, a trooper stopped a South Dakota man near I-80 for an improper turn and failure to signal. After a drug-detection dog indicated the presence of drugs, a search of the vehicle turned up 40 pounds of marijuana in his trunk.
In a fairly recent arrest, a Nebraska State Patrol trooper found 127 pounds of marijuana after stopping a sport utility vehicle and smelling marijuana. The Pennsylvania driver and passenger were arrested. In a different case near Omaha, Douglas County deputies stopped a vehicle travelling between Colorado and Wisconsin. In a search, they found half a pound of marijuana and foods laced with marijuana. The men purchased the marijuana legally from a medical dispensary in Colorado.
License plates and probable cause
Cars traveling through Nebraska with license plates from Colorado, California, Oregon, Arizona and Washington often come under more suspicion because people frequently transport illegal drugs from those states through Nebraska.
Driving a rental vehicle from Colorado, California, Oregon, Arizona and Washington through Nebraska increases the level of suspicion because people transporting illegal drugs from those states often rent vehicles for travel.
Minor traffic violations that might not prompt a stop of someone with Nebraska plates could be used to justify an Interstate 80 drug stop of an apparent out-of-state vehicle. This is especially true for those from states that have legalized marijuana: California, Colorado, Oregon, or Washington. To support a stop, an officer must have probable cause. Generally, even a minor traffic violation provides probable cause to stop a vehicle.
The facts of a recent Nebraska Supreme Court case illustrate the point. A vehicle with out-of-state plates was stopped on I-80 after its wheels briefly crossed the line between two eastbound lanes. While the officer was writing a warning, a drug detection dog indicated the presence of a controlled substance. A search of the vehicle found cocaine.
Nebraska traffic laws require a vehicle to stay in its lane “as nearly as practicable” and the officer admitted that minor touching of the line happens all the time by unimpaired drivers. Thus the court found that there was no probable cause to support the stop.
Furthermore, making things more difficult is the rule in most states that the odor of marijuana gives an officer probable cause to search a vehicle for marijuana. Officers in Nebraska frequently use the odor of marijuana as an excuse to search a vehicle and it is nearly impossible to prove that the officer didn’t actually smell marijuana.
When to consult an experience criminal defense attorney
If you are charged with drug possession or drug trafficking charges along I-80, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who can ensure your rights are protected. If the grounds for the traffic stop were questionable, it is possible obtain a reduction in the charges or have them dismissed altogether.
The Berry Law has extensive experience defending people charged with drug crimes throughout the Midwest. One of the attorneys in the office, Chad J. Wythers, is a member of the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, and the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar.