The risk of a drug arrest and search even when the cops don’t see what is being transferred hand-to-hand
This week, Virginia’s intermediate appellate court detailed the totality of circumstances to consider in determining whether probable cause exists to arrest and search for drugs, after witnessing a hand-to-hand transaction. Powell v. Virginia, ___ Va. App. ___ (Nov. 3, 2010).
The court’s reasons for finding probable cause to search Powell are mainly summarized as follows in Powell :
[P]robable cause supported the officer’s decision to arrest Powell for a suspected drug offense. Powell left a known “drug house” – where the officer had previously conducted multiple warrant searches yielding drugs, and where “numerous intelligence” reports had confirmed ongoing drug activity – and raced to an obviously prearranged meeting with another vehicle on the side of the road by a dumpster.
Powell and the driver of the other vehicle engaged in a hand-to-hand transaction which the officer believed to be consistent with “a dime or twenty rock” of cocaine. The officer then saw Powell make a “wiping motion with his thumb across the other fingers” that the officer interpreted as an effort to wipe off “the crumbs of crack cocaine which is a real tacky.” The vehicles were together no more than thirty seconds. In their totality, these facts demonstrate the officer had probable cause to believe he had just witnessed a drug transaction, and thus, had the authority to arrest Powell and search him incident to that arrest.