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Seatbelt violation turns into drug charges for Georgia man

Many cars have faulty taillights and their drivers don't know about the problem until a police officer pulls them over to tell them about it. The driver may even be grateful to find out about the safety hazard. However, it's quite common for Georgia drivers to be pulled over for a minor traffic violation only to end up facing drug charges.

A Georgia man now faces serious drug distribution charges after police said a stop based upon a seatbelt violation led to the seizure of more than 220 grams of marijuana. Police did not say how they could see that he was not wearing a seatbelt before they approached his car. They did say that once they approached the car, they could smell marijuana. This led to a search of the vehicle in which they found marijuana and a scale inside the car. Police said they later visited the man at his home for a follow-up investigation, whereupon they found a significant quantity of marijuana.

This story illustrates a couple of important points about criminal defense against drug charges. First, there is the issue of the traffic stop. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. That generally means that police need a warrant backed by probable cause before they can search a person's home, although that requirement has many exceptions.

Police have a lot more leeway when it comes to searching cars, but they cannot search any car indiscriminately. It's quite common for police to pull over a car based upon expired plates or a malfunctioning taillight and then question the driver until he or she consents to a search. Once they have the driver's consent, the police have nearly complete freedom to scour the car for signs of illegal activity.

Second, there is the issue of the drug distribution charge. Georgia's penalties for drug possession are serious, but the penalties for drug distribution are much worse. While police are often happy to arrest people for drug possession, they're always looking to disrupt the drug trade by going after distribution networks. Prosecutors presume that anyone with more than a small amount of illegal drugs intends to sell them. Scales, bags or other items used in selling drugs can be used as evidence to show that the suspect was selling drugs.

Georgia residents accused of drug crimes are entitled to a defense. A strong defense looks at all the circumstances of the arrest and the search. If the police overstepped their authority, the defendant may be able to have the evidence suppressed.

Source: West Cobb Patch, "Powder Springs Man Faces Drug Charges," Rodney Thrash, August 12, 2013

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