Search illegal after driver told he could go, but blocked in

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PORTLAND — Traffic stops hold a unique place in Oregon law. They are "temporary seizures" that allow police to investigate a violation, identify a driver and issue a citation.

At that point, the stop is over. But what if the driver doesn't leave?

And what if he can't because the officer's car is in the way?

The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled last week that the answer is complicated.

The case in question involves a police officer in Marion County who pulled over a driver he recognized from a couple of previous high-speed chases, one of which ended in a struggle with police.

The officer parked behind the car, a Buick driven by Myles Peterson, and blocked it in. He got Peterson's car registration, cited him for running a red light and told him he could leave.

But the officer was still parked behind the Buick. Then he started to chat with Peterson and realized that the registration Peterson showed him was for an Acura, not a Buick.

The officer started a search and found a Visine bottle filled with heroin. A jury used that to convict Peterson of a drug charge.

The appeals court found that, from the moment the officer told Peterson he could leave, the search was over. And by blocking him in, he created an "unlawful extension," Judge Timothy Sercombe wrote.

"You told him he was free to go, but he wasn't actually able to leave at that point, was he?" Peterson's attorney asked the officer during a hearing that was quoted in the ruling.

"Without asking you, he couldn't have left, isn't that right?" the attorney said.

Such stops have precedents, and the courts haven't been kind to law enforcement.

In one case, an Oregon State Police trooper told a group of men they could leave but leaned on the driver's-side door, asked them if they were transporting contraband and asked to search the car. The court said that's illegal.

Prosecutors said that Peterson should have just asked the officer to move his car.

"We reject that argument because the obligation to unambiguously end traffic stops does not fall on citizens," Sercombe ruled, "it falls on law enforcement officials."

The decision sends the case back to Marion County Circuit Court Judge Albin W. Norblad, with orders that the seized heroin evidence be suppressed.