Purse search was improper, court decides

Saturday, June 27, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Where a woman leaves her purse makes all the difference when police find drugs in it, the Ohio 1st District Court of Appeals said Friday.

The case began early on May 3, 1997, at the Yacht Club bar in Camp Washington, when Cincinnati Police Spec. Ken Isham questioned Donna S. Robinson about a plain-clothes colleague's suspicion of marijuana possession.

At Spec. Isham's request, Ms. Robinson stepped outside but left her white purse behind.

A pat-down for weapons found nothing and the 28-year-old Camp Washington resident was held in the police car while Spec. Isham retrieved her purse and set it on the hood of his car.

When another officer's computer check found an open warrant for a parking ticket, Ms. Robinson was arrested and Spec. Isham searched her purse without permission or a warrant.

He found a small package of cocaine and after Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Deirdra Hair rejected defense attorney Richard J. Goldberg's challenge to the search and legality of the evidence. Ms. Robinson was convicted of cocaine possession and appealed. In a 3-0 decision written by Judge Marianna Brown Bettman, the appellate court said a warrantless search would have been constitutional if the purse were within Ms. Robinson's immediate control.

That's because the courts approve such warrantless searches to protect officers from hidden weapons and to prevent the destruction of evidence.

However, Ms. Robinson's purse "was nowhere near her and utterly outside her immediate control. Thus, the limited permissible justification for the warrantless search incident to lawful arrest did not exist."

Now, it's up to Prosecutor Joseph T. Deters whether to appeal that decision, retry Ms. Robinson without the cocaine, or drop the entire affair.

"They have nothing left," attorney Goldberg said.

It was too early to say what prosecutors would do, spokeswoman Jennifer E. Day said.

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