Ohio's Second District Court of Appeals ruled last week that a police officer could peek over a restroom stall partition to make an arrest in a drug possession case. The case involved defendant Brian Trainer, who allegedly entered a Wal-Mart in Springfield Ohio appearing impaired and slurring his speech. Employees called police and told the officers that Trainer was in the handicapped stall in the bathroom when they arrived at the store. Both officers testified at trial that they were aware that restroom stalls were sometimes used for the injection of heroin.
One officer testified that he saw Trainer standing with his back to the stall door, with his pants up, appearing to set things out on the toilet paper dispenser. The officer then went into the next stall, stood on the toilet seat and looked over the partition, where he saw Trainer with a spoon with yellow powder and a syringe with liquid in it. The officer arrested Trainer. He was charged with Aggravated Possession of Drugs. At trial, he moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the officer did not have probable cause to conduct the search. The trial court overruled the motion and Trainer pleaded no contest. He was convicted and then appealed.
The Second District found that the officer's search did require probable cause, because when he stood up on the toilet seat and looked over the partition "he was no longer observing from a position where he had a right to observe, without violating the objectively reasonable expectations of a person in the adjacent stall." The court held that the officers did have probable cause to conduct the search based on what they observed before peeking over the stall and because of their training and experience. The court also found that the fact that drugs can be easily flushed down a toilet amounted to an exigent circumstance that allowed the officers to conduct the search without a warrant.