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Justices Ponder Traffic Stop That Stumped State Appeals Court

State high court questions whether case should have been sent straight to it

, Daily Report

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Justice Keith R. Blackwell
Justice Keith Blackwell wrote the opinion for a unanimous court.

The Georgia Supreme Court on Tuesday wrestled with a state Court of Appeals opinion that purported to uphold a trial judge's decision in a criminal case—even though only six of the appeals court's 12 judges said the trial judge was right.

Lawyers debated whether the appeals judges—upon realizing they were split—should have referred the matter to the high court immediately rather than issuing dueling opinions that seemed to perplex the justices.

At issue is a Gwinnett County traffic stop based on a police camera system that runs images of license plates on passing vehicles through a database of outstanding warrants. The Georgia Supreme Court last year agreed to hear the defendant's argument that evidence of marijuana possession gathered in a search conducted during the stop should have been suppressed, but the justices also indicated they would consider whether the Court of Appeals correctly followed a state constitutional provision requiring cases in which the judges are equally split to be transferred to the high court.

The appellant is Sonia Rodriguez of Lilburn, who was arrested and charged with marijuana possession after an August 2010 traffic stop. In advance of any trial, Rodriguez appealed the trial judge's denial of a motion to suppress marijuana found by police in her car during the traffic stop.

As recounted in the April 12 Court of Appeals opinion that purported to decide the case, a police officer stopped the vehicle driven by Rodriguez based on information provided to the officer by an automatic license plate recognition system. That system used cameras mounted on the officer's police car to record images of license plates on passing vehicles. As the Chevrolet Impala driven by Rodriguez passed the officer's car, the system alerted the officer that an Enrique Sanchez was wanted on an outstanding arrest warrant for failing to appear in court on citations issued to Sanchez while driving an Impala with the displayed license plate.

Based on that alert, the officer stopped the Impala but found via a computer check that the vehicle was registered to Rodriguez. Rodriguez produced identification and explained that Sanchez was her son and that he had failed to appear because he was in prison.

Another computer check showed that the passenger in the Impala, Ereka Williams, had an outstanding arrest warrant from Florida. The officer who initiated the stop was by this point joined by another officer, and the police proceeded to seek verification of extradition of Williams on the Florida charge. While waiting, the police obtained Rodriguez's consent for a search of her vehicle and Williams' consent for a search of her purse.

In their search, the officers found marijuana in the vehicle console and trunk and in Williams' purse. Rodriguez was charged with one count of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. She filed a motion to suppress the marijuana, a motion that Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Michael Clark denied. (Williams also was named as a defendant in the indictment but is not a party to the appeal.)

A three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals affirmed Clark, with Judge Sara Doyle writing the Feb. 19 opinion joined by Judges Gary Andrews and Michael Boggs. Doyle wrote that the stop of the vehicle was lawful and that the officer didn't unreasonably extend the stop's scope or duration.

The defense filed a motion for reconsideration which, in an unusual turn of events, prompted the consideration of the case by all 12 of the court's judges and the issuance of a new decision, apparently written by a different judge. Under the court's rules, cases are to be considered by the whole court when one of the court's judges wants the court to overrule one of its precedents.

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