Alaska appeals court challenges police searches

June 20, 2016 GMT

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) — The Alaska Court of Appeals is asking the state’s highest court to re-examine rules regarding police searches after throwing out a conviction for a Fairbanks man who was charged because officers found cocaine in his vehicle’s ashtray.

A Superior Court judge found Frederick Pitka guilty in 2011 of driving under the influence and fourth-degree felony drugs misconduct. Superior Court Judge Michael MacDonald had rejected Pitka’s argument that the ashtray search violated his federal and state rights protecting him from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

The appeals court decision issued Friday states that Pitka’s Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution weren’t violated because police had probable cause to suspect he had illegal drugs in his vehicle. However, the three-judge panel found that the officers violated a state law that says a closed container in a vehicle can only be searched if it’s “immediately associated” with the suspect.

“Here, the police understandably (though erroneously) assumed that the ashtray of a vehicle could be searched as a matter of course incident to the arrest of the driver,” the opinion says.

In a separate concurring opinion, judges David Mannheimer and Marjorie Allard asked the Alaska Supreme Court to look review laws that allow police to search center consoles in vehicles, The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported (http://bit.ly/1UWAsj5 ).

“The current law has proved confusing and difficult to apply in practice — as Pitka’s case illustrates,” the judges wrote.

The court’s Friday decision does not affect Pitka’s DUI conviction.


Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com