What is Search and Seizure in Utah?

Recent Search and Seizure Law

The law of search and seizure continues to get refined.
Recent search and seizure law from the Utah Supreme Court.

On an evening in December, Mr. Anderson was sitting in his parked car on the side of a rural highway with his hazard lights on. Two sheriff’s deputies pulled over to check on the welfare of any people in the vehicle, considering the hazard lights, the cold weather, and the late hour. Once the deputies approached Mr. Anderson, they became aware of his bloodshot eyes and the fact that he did not know which direction he was traveling. The deputies requested that Mr. Anderson step out of his car, which he agreed, and they then had him empty his pockets. Mr. Anderson also agreed to a blood draw to test for illegal substances, but he did not allow the deputies to complete a field sobriety test. The deputies obtained a warrant to arrest Mr. Anderson, obtain his blood, and search his car. They found no illegal substances in his blood, but they did find drug paraphernalia and less than an ounce of marijuana in his car.

A jury found Mr. Anderson guilty of possessing marijuana and drug paraphernalia. In this appeal, he asserts that the district court erred when denying his motion to suppress the evidence found in his car because the deputies violated his Fourth Amendment rights when they seized his vehicle without sufficient justification.

The issue before the Supreme Court of Utah was whether the evidence of marijuana found in Mr. Anderson’s vehicle was obtained in violation of Mr. Anderson’s Fourth Amendment rights. One of the issues the court had to look at to answer that question was whether the deputies seized Mr. Anderson within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when they parked behind his vehicle with their police lights flashing.

A show of authority from the deputies is sufficient to constitute a seizure if in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave. It is not the officer’s intent, but rather a reasonable person’s interpretation of an officer’s actions that determines whether an individual has been seized by an officer through a show of authority. The court explains that the consequences of wrongly guessing the officer’s intent in engaging the overhead lights and driving away from the officer could potentially be severe; it is a third-degree felony to attempt “to flee or elude a peace officer” after receiving “a visual or audible signal from a peace officer to bring the vehicle to a stop.” Utah Code § 41-6a-210(1). This possibility of being accused of a felony could stop a reasonable person from driving away under the facts presented in this case. This issue turns on the particular circumstances of each case, but under the facts here, when the deputies turned on their overhead flashing lights while parked directly behind Mr. Anderson’s vehicle, the court found that the deputies seized Mr. Anderson.

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