Police tactics in drug possession cases vary on a case-by-case basis.  Yet, the most critical factor in the police’s choice of tactics is typically the quantity of drugs suspected to be involved.  

Low-Level Possession Cases, Usually Involving Small Drug Amounts

A large percentage of low-level possession cases start with one of these three things, all of which you will recognize from our previous discussions in this book:

  • A traffic stop, 
  • A Terry stop, or 
  • A plain view sighting of drugs.  

In such cases, there is really no high-level police work going on.  More or less, the police stumble into finding drugs. 

In a traffic stop, if the police have probable cause or make a lawful arrest, then they can search that car.  They will often search the car after a lawful arrest as part of their department policy.  They may have absolutely no suspicion of drug involvement when starting the search, but if they find drugs then a drug possession charge will result.  Also, as discussed above, the police will often claim that they smelled marijuana to develop their basis to search your car.    

A Terry stop, which as we noted is based on the United States Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, allows the cops to stop an individual when they have a reasonable articulable suspicion that the person is involved in criminal activity.  In order to search that person, the officer needs either probable cause of criminal activity (a higher standard than reasonable articulable suspicion) or reasonable articulable suspicion that the person has a weapon.  Your attorney should be jumping up and down about this point.  The notion that someone “might” or “could” have a weapon is not, and should not, be enough.  In any event, the police will often frisk someone out on the street based on the Terry stop standard.  Many times, drugs often show up this way.  

Finally, in plain view drug cases, the police are able to conduct a search to obtain drugs when they see drugs in plain sight, while doing something they are lawfully allowed to do.  For example, they might have gotten a noise complaint, and when someone answers the door, the police see cocaine on the coffee table.  Or, they may execute a traffic stop for speeding and see nine kinds of pills in the console of the vehicle.  As another example, the police may simply be driving by and see someone smoking a crackpipe while sitting on a park bench.  All of those scenarios describe drugs obtained after the police see them in plain view. 

The key question to ask with regard to plain view searches is whether the action by the police that put them in a position to see the drugs was actually lawful.  If so, the plain view exception to the warrant requirement applies.  

Possession Cases Involving a Significant Quantity of Drugs

Sometimes the police suspect trafficking, cultivation, or manufacturing of drugs; or they suspect possession of a large quantity of drugs.  Thus, as a quick preview of the next section of this book, we will discuss in more detail the more advanced techniques of policing, such as:

  • Wiretaps
  • Confidential informants
  • Other advanced surveillance techniques  

With regard to wiretaps, the police need to get a warrant to listen in, or “tap,” a suspect’s phone.  When that suspect speaks to someone about any sort of criminal activity, then the police can get a warrant to tap that second person’s phone and so on.  

With regard to confidential informants (CIs), the police often use CIs to buy drugs from someone in typically larger quantities.  Notably, the CIs almost always have something to gain by participating in these controlled buys, like a shorter prison sentence in their own cases, or in having charges against them dismissed in exchange for their cooperation.  

Other surveillance techniques may involve cameras.  For example, police have been known to use an infrared camera to determine heat patterns in a suspected marijuana grow house or methamphetamine cook house.  The police can even get a warrant to place a GPS tracker on someone’s vehicle to see their comings and goings.  Most of the time, a suspect would be unaware of any of the advanced surveillance.  

As noted, most of these techniques and procedures require the police to obtain a warrant, which will be covered in more detail in the next section of this book.  The failure to obtain a warrant when required should result in the exclusion from trial of any evidence obtained from that illegal activity.  By contrast, the use of CIs, or the police simply surveilling with their own eyes, does not require a warrant.  The latter are by far the most common ways that the police try to prove a drug possession case.

Are you or someone you know facing drug charges in Cincinnati, OH? 

If you are facing drug charges, you need to speak with an experienced drug crimes attorney as soon as possible. The Law Offices of Steven R. Adams is recognized by Super Lawyers, Best Lawyers, The Best Lawyers in America, National Trial Lawyers Top 100, and is one of U.S. News' Best Law Firms.  Please contact us online or call our Cincinnati office directly at 513-929-9333 to schedule your free consultation. 

Tad Brittingham
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Criminal defense attorney Tad Brittingham is dedicated to serving his clients throughout the Cincinnati area