Walla Walla judge right to exclude evidence from search

Judge Schacht properly ruled that Walla Walla police conducted an unconstitutional search.

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The state Constitution's protection against invasion of privacy must be taken seriously.

But, too often, people want police, prosecutors and judges to look the other way when rights are violated so a suspected criminal can be successfully prosecuted -- and punished. In their minds the ends justify the means.

Besides, they rationalize, it couldn't happen to me.

Actually, it could if police were to continue down this path. It's not that big a leap to go from searching cars stopped for minor traffic violations to searching homes.

We cannot allow government to invade our lives with unreasonable searches -- homes and vehicles -- that put freedom at risk.

Walla Walla Superior Court Judge Donald W. Schacht should be applauded for making the difficult decision to suppress evidence collected in a local police search he determined to be unconstitutional.

It's unfortunate this evidence was lost and with it the case. But the facts support Schacht's ruling.

Walla Walla Police Officer Ignacio Colin pulled over a vehicle driven by Carma R. Smith because the license plate was not properly illuminated. Officer Gunner Fulmer then arrived at the scene with a drug-sniffing dog.

Fulmer asked if he could search Smith's vehicle. She denied permission, so Fulmer asked her and passenger Pastor Tapia-Nunez to get out and they were searched for weapons. A knife was found. The dog, Rev, then sniffed for drugs.

The dog alerted the officer to the presence of drugs in the car, the vehicle was seized, and a search warrant obtained. In addition to meth, the subsequent search uncovered seven handguns and a rifle, six of the pistols were stolen in a burglary at the Worm Ranch off Wallula Avenue.

That evidence was central to prosecuting Smith and Tapia-Nunez.

Shacht ruled the search was unlawful and therefore the evidence collected was not admissible. Schacht wrote that Colin's initial stop was justified, but Fulmer's request of Smith and Tapia-Nunez to step out of the vehicle amounted to an unjustified seizure, the judge wrote.

It "was not warranted based upon the license plate light investigation, as Officer Colin had no suspicion of other illegal activities as he prepared to write the citation. Officer Fulmer having just arrived on the scene also had no particularized suspicions of other illegal activities. The State has failed to point to any specific and articulable facts justifying the removal of the Defendants from the vehicle and the search for weapons," Schacht said.

Schacht, a former county prosecuting attorney, is hardly a soft-on-crime judge nor does he coddle criminals.

But Schacht clearly takes seriously his duty to uphold the law. If he were to have allowed this search to stand, he would have likely been overturned by a higher court.

Walla Walla police need to rethink how they use their drug-sniffing dog. Rev should be dispatched only when officers have reason to believe criminal activity is taking place.

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