Earlier this month, The United States Court of Special Appeals Fourth Circuit in the Eastern District of Virginia issued a ruling in favor of a truck driver stopped for not having the proper permit and also charged with cannabis possession. The ruling came down on September 11, and explained why Jaison Feliciana, driving a bakery truck on Virginia’s George Washington Parkway should not be charged for the cannabis found hidden in his shoe during a search following a traffic stop initiated by a United States Park Police Officer.
The officer, Jonathan Alto explained that at the time, October 28, 2017, he knew commercial vehicles like the one Feliciana was driving needed a permit to drive on the George Washington Parkway and he stopped him to check if he had one. Feliciana, it turned out, did not have one, and explained to Alto that he thought that permit only applied to larger delivery trucks.
During the conversation, Alto claimed he smelled cannabis and Feliciana admitted he had smoked earlier that day. Then Alto claimed, Feliciana appeared “nervous.” When Alto asked Feliciana to get out of the truck, Alto noticed a pipe on the floor of the truck. “When he asked Feliciana if the pipe was for marijuana, Feliciana lunged toward the truck, at which point Officer Alto restrained him in handcuffs,” the ruling explains. “Ultimately, after searching the truck and Feliciana, Officer Alto found a small bag of marijuana in Feliciana’s shoe.”
Feliciana was charged for driving without the proper permit and for the cannabis. When the case eventually went to court, Feliciana’s lawyers attempted to have the cannabis suppressed but the motion to suppress was denied. At the time, the court also said that Feliciana could be stopped based on “reasonable suspicion”: Because he was driving a commercial vehicle, it could be possible that he was not in possession of the permit to drive a commercial vehicle. Additionally, claiming cannabis smell, that Feliciana said he smoked earlier in the day, and the appearance of a pipe made it “reasonable” to search him and eventually find the cannabis in his shoe.
The United States Court of Special Appeals however, ruled that because Feliciana was driving a commercial vehicle on the parkway did not mean an officer could stop him to see if he had the proper permits: “Officer Alto did not articulate any reason to suspect that Feliciana did not possess the requisite permit to drive a commercial vehicle on the Parkway,” the ruling explains. “The entire factual basis he offered for conducting the traffic stop was that he saw a vehicle requiring a permit on the Parkway. But that fact by itself is wholly innocent.”
As a result, the cannabis charge—the result of stop which eventually led to the discovery of cannabis in Feliciana’s shoe—was vacated.
“In sum, the Government has failed to show that Officer Alto possessed reasonable suspicion of illegality when he stopped Feliciana’s truck or that he acted pursuant to an administrative inspection scheme in conducting the stop,” the ruling explains. “Because the initial traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment, any evidence obtained from it, including the marijuana found in Feliciana’s shoe, should have been suppressed.”