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People v. Brownlee

June 17, 1999


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Bilandic

-Agenda 6-November 1998

In the circuit court of Champaign County, the State charged the defendant, Ladresha F. Brownlee, with the offense of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance containing cocaine (720 ILCS 570/401(c)(2) (West 1994)). The defendant moved to quash her arrest and suppress the evidence against her. Following a hearing, the circuit court granted the defendant's motion. The State filed a certificate of impairment and appealed pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 604(a)(1) (145 Ill. 2d R. 604(a)(1)). The appellate court reversed and remanded for further proceedings. 293 Ill. App. 3d 315. We allowed the defendant's petition for leave to appeal (177 Ill. 2d R. 315) and now reverse the appellate court.

The State's Attorney of Cook County filed a brief as amicus curiae in support of the State. 155 Ill. 2d R. 345.


Urbana police officers Carlos Guerrero and Duane Maxey testified regarding the November 7, 1995, events that led to the defendant's arrest. The officers were on a "special detail" patrol looking for illegal drug activity and illegal weapons. Around 9:10 p.m., Guerrero observed a white car stop in front of an apartment complex. He drove by the car, turned around, and then observed the car leaving. The car had been stopped for about one minute.

As the officers drove past, Maxey watched one person exit the vehicle, knock on a residence door, and then leave. Maxey testified that he did not know whether the door was answered, but he believed that it was not. Nonetheless, this behavior aroused his suspicion because the area was known for its "crack houses" and because "it's commonplace for a [drug purchaser] to pull up, run up to a home for just a moment, make a buy and leave." According to Maxey, he and Guerrero verbally agreed to stop the car if probable cause for a traffic stop arose. Guerrero, however, stated that no conversation occurred on this subject. Maxey also testified that, while driving by the car, Guerrero informed him that Guerrero recognized the car's driver from past encounters. In contrast, Guerrero stated that he was not even able to identify the race or sex of the car's occupants.

The officers followed the car. The car proceeded without violating the law until it stopped at an intersection and turned left. Guerrero observed that the car failed to activate its turn signal within 100 feet of approaching the intersection and that, at the intersection, the car stopped two feet beyond the stop sign. Maxey also observed the traffic violations and described the car as stopping about "one-half a car length" past the stop sign. The officers decided to stop the car for violating the traffic laws. Guerrero admitted that he wanted "to see if something would come of it." To his recollection, he had never before issued a traffic citation for either of these violations.

The officers approached the car, Guerrero toward the driver's side and Maxey toward the passenger's side. The driver and front seat passenger were young-adult males. Two young female passengers, one of whom was the defendant, sat in the backseat. The officers obtained the identities of all four occupants because identifying everyone in a vehicle was common departmental practice. Maxey observed that the defendant was holding an unopened bottle of beer, which did not violate the law. The officers then returned to their car and checked for outstanding warrants. They found none. The officers decided not to issue any traffic citations, but agreed to ask the driver for permission to search the car.

The officers re-approached the car. Guerrero testified that he returned to the driver his license and insurance card, and explained that no citations would be issued. He did not advise the driver that he could leave. Rather, Guerrero then "paused a couple [of] minutes." Following this pause, he asked the driver if he could search the vehicle. When asked what words he used in this regard, Guerrero explained that he told the driver that "we were concerned that there might be more alcohol in the car" and that he "just wanted permission to take a look inside the vehicle." The driver asked Guerrero whether he had a choice in the matter. Guerrero replied that the driver did have a choice and that he was "asking" if he could search the vehicle. The driver stepped out of the car and said, "Okay, you can search."

The three passengers were ordered out of the car and directed to stand with Maxey. Guerrero found an open beer bottle on the backseat floor where the defendant's feet had been. He also found two "blunts" lying underneath a man's jacket bundled up in the center of the front seat. A "blunt" was described as a hollowed-out cigar refilled with marijuana. No one claimed ownership of the blunts. The officers believed that the blunts were within reach of all the car's occupants because the front seat was split with a small armrest in the middle. When the four occupants exited the car, all were wearing coats with the exception of the male passenger.

Maxey testified that the defendant denied having any knowledge of the blunts. The other female passenger told Maxey that the blunts belonged to the men, but that all four individuals had been smoking them. The officers, however, noted that the blunts were not burned. Moreover, while searching the car, neither officer had noticed the odor of marijuana.

According to Maxey, the officers determined that they had probable cause to arrest all four individuals in the car because (1) the blunts were within reach of all four individuals, (2) no one claimed ownership of the blunts, (3) the other female passenger stated that all four individuals had smoked the blunts, and (4) the defendant stated that she had smoked marijuana before joining the others. Police searched the defendant incident to her arrest. On her person, police found the controlled substance that forms the basis of the present charge filed against her.

In the circuit court, the defendant filed a motion to quash her arrest and suppress the evidence against her. The motion charged, in pertinent part, that "the search of said vehicle violated Defendant's *** constitutional rights in that the continued detention and search of said vehicle were unrelated to the original *** basis for the stop of said vehicle and any consent was the product of such unlawful detention." Defense counsel presented oral argument on this issue:

"[The officers] go back to their squad car. They run a warrant check and find that none of them have any outstanding warrants. At that point Officer Guerrero told us *** that *** they are not going to issue any [traffic] citations ***, but *** they were going to try to get consent to search the vehicle just to see if there was anything there. Under Terry [v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889, 88 S. Ct. 1868 (1968)] and the [line of] cases which followed, even if that stop is justified, they have no right to further detain the vehicle to do an exploratory search just to see if something is there. "* * * "*** The continued detention of the occupants of the vehicle, including my client, violates her rights. The scope of that detention violates her rights."

In further support of this position, defense counsel asked the court to consider State v. Chatton, 11 Ohio St. 3d 59, 463 N.E.2d 1237 (1984). In Chatton, an officer observed a vehicle without front or rear license plates. The officer effected a traffic stop and approached the vehicle on foot. Once the officer reached the vehicle's window, the officer observed a temporary license placard. Despite the officer's observation of the placard, he continued to detain the driver. Ultimately, a weapon was discovered underneath the driver's seat and the driver was arrested for a weapons violation. The Supreme Court of Ohio held that the officer lacked the authority to continue to detain the driver after observing the license placard, because the officer no longer had reasonable suspicion to suspect the driver of a traffic violation. Because the court found the officer's continued detention of the driver to be unconstitutional, it suppressed the weapon that was found as a result of that detention. Chatton, 11 Ohio St. 3d at 63, 463 N.E.2d at 1241.

The circuit court here first ruled that the initial traffic stop was permissible because the officers observed traffic violations. In doing so, the court rejected the defendant's separate argument that the traffic stop was invalid because the officers had effected a pretextual stop with the subjective intent to look for illegal drugs and weapons. Nonetheless, the circuit court quashed the defendant's arrest and suppressed the evidence against her. After referencing the line of cases pointed to by defense counsel, the court explained the basis for its ruling from the bench:

"[I]t simply seems to me the kind of a case, when the officers testified they decided that as far as the traffic matters were concerned it was clear there weren't going to be any citations, I simply think that line of cases *** is talking about a situation like this where, in effect, the matter has been cleared as far as the traffic stop was concerned and there was nothing else to create any reasonable or articulable suspicion of any other ...

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