The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday threw out a 2010 Springville drug case, saying the officers did not have reasonable suspicion to search the defendant's truck. But the justices affirmed that officers may frisk a suspect in a traffic stop if they fear for their safety.
Craig Gurule, 45, pleaded guilty to first-degree felony possession of a controlled substance after a Springville officer found 2.9 grams methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia in his truck during a traffic stop on Nov. 3, 2010. But Gurule reserved the right to appeal, claiming the evidence from the truck was found during an unconstitutional search. The court agreed with Gurule.
Police had said they spotted Gurule at Allen's Super Save in Springville after receiving an anonymous tip that two Latino men had exchanged money and plastic baggies in the parking lot. The tipster mentioned seeing a gray Dodge truck belonging to a person with the last name Luna a vehicle and name the officers recognized "as having past drug involvements."
The officers did not find the gray truck at the store, but they saw Craig Gurule leave the store with grocery bags and get into his father's black Ford truck. The officers knew of Gurule because he was on parole for drug and weapons violations in 2006, and citizen informants and other police had said he was "possibly involved in drug activity."
The officers followed Gurule, noting that he left his turn signal on for about three blocks and was driving on the fog line. They tried to pull Gurule over, but he did not immediately stop. Gurule instead glanced around, fiddled with something in his left hand and slowed down until the police turned on sirens.
The officers frisked Gurule and looked into the driver's side of the truck for weapons or contraband, but they found nothing, the ruling states. The officers called for a police dog, but none were available, so they called a parole agent and described the traffic stop. The parole agent asked the Springville officers to search Gurule's truck, where the drug evidence was found.
The state Attorney General's Office, arguing for the police, said the officers had reasonable suspicion that Gurule was dealing drugs. He had been seen leaving the grocery store where a drug deal had been reported; he matched the tipster's description; he had been mentioned as a possible drug suspect; he was on parole; and he made "furtive" gestures.
"We thought the officers had sufficient facts to have reasonable suspicion," said Jeffrey Gray, assistant attorney general.
But the justices found that, apart from race, Gurule had no demonstrated connection to any details of the reported drug deal at Allen's store; many Latinos shop at the store, so "it is presumptive to assume that Gurule was one of the two men involved," the court's ruling states. Simply being a parolee and a subject of special attention from investigators "did not give rise to a reasonable suspicion that Gurule was, at the moment, engaged in ... criminal activity," the court concluded.
Gurule's "suspicious actions" before stopping also did not rise to reasonable suspicion of illegal activity that would justify a search, justices ruled. But they did say his behavior justified the officers' protective frisk to check Gurule for weapons.
"A seemingly benign traffic stop presents a very real threat to law enforcement officers," the ruling states.
"That was a very good ruling," Gray said. "It shows that officers can take reasonable measures to protect themselves."