State Supreme Court upholds search and seizure ruling

A woman's purse can be seen as a threat and subject to search and seizure if a police officer suspects it contains a weapon, the Oregon Supreme Court has ruled.

The court on Thursday rejected a Gold Hill woman's appeal of a heroin possession conviction by ruling the search was legal.

Carolyn Ann Morgan, 57, was a passenger in her own car when police performed a routine traffic stop in June 2006. The driver of the car was arrested on an outstanding warrant. When the officer asked to search Morgan's car, she agreed, and stepped outside with a large purse, according to the opinion filed by the court.

The officer told Morgan she could leave her bag in the car, and testified he would not have searched it. But, the officer said, Morgan became agitated and he became concerned she might have a weapon when she reached into the purse.

"(Morgan) began backing way from (the officer) while shaking her head. She then reached into the purse," court documents said.

The officer testified he seized the purse, which was described in trial testimony as a "tote bag" and found the heroin while searching for a weapon.

"The deputy then took the bag for officer safety reasons and saw paraphernalia for drug use," the record reads.

Morgan was charged with a single count of felony drug possession and appeared in Jackson County Circuit Court. She was represented by public defender Andy Vandergaw, who attempted to suppress the drug evidence, arguing the drugs were discovered during an illegal search.

Judge William Purdy denied the motion to suppress. Vandergaw said Morgan offered a plea of guilty before with the condition she could appeal her conviction to the Court of Appeals. She was sentenced to 10 days in jail and 18 months of probation.

The lower court upheld Morgan's conviction in a split decision. The minority view stated that the officer's advice to Morgan — that she must either leave her purse in the car or allow it to be searched — itself constituted a seizure of Morgan, her purse or both.

The dissenters wrote that the officer's insistence of searching Morgan's purse expanded her "clear intent" concerning the scope of her consent to search her car. They also said that Morgan's refusal to allow the officer to search her purse should not have constituted reasonable suspicion.

But the Court of Appeals majority countered, "It is not the role of the courts to 'uncharitably second-guess an officer's judgment' concerning a potential threat."

The state Supreme Court on Thursday concurred and upheld the lower courts' rulings. Morgan's conviction stands.

Sanne Specht is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 541-776-4497 or e-mail The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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