©2012 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)
On June 5, 2012, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Carter[i], which serves as an excellent review of two rules regarding warrantless searches of automobiles. The facts of Carter, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
In 2006, Tampa Police Officer Petit frequently communicated with a concerned citizen about the drug activity in her neighborhood. The concerned citizen received no compensation for her phone calls and was generally considered a reliable source. In July 2006, she called Officer Petit and advised him of a possible drug transaction. When he arrived, Officer Petit observed two men standing near a building. One of the men walked away from the other and conducted a drug transaction with a woman. The other man (later identified as Carter) then approached a different woman who had just arrived at the scene. From his vantage point, Officer Petit could not see what happened between Carter and the second woman, but he could see that they “made brief contact with their hands.” Given his prior experience as a narcotics officer, Officer Petit was convinced that he had witnessed a hand-to-hand drug transaction. During Petit’s observation of the transaction, he identified Carter and discovered that he had a suspended driver’s license. He conveyed this information to the concerned citizen and asked that she call him if she ever saw Carter driving.
In August 2006, the citizen called Officer Petit to report that Carter was driving around her neighborhood. Officer Petit called for backup, and the backup officer saw Carter near a local park. This officer saw Carter drive his car into a parking space, get out of his car, and walk toward the nearby pavilion approximately thirty to forty feet away from his car. When Officer Petit arrived, the two officers positively identified Carter, verified that his license was still suspended, approached him, and arrested him for driving with a suspended license. The officers detected a strong smell of marijuana on Carter and discovered more than $500 in small, disorganized bills stashed in various pockets. Carter stated that he did not have drugs on his person, and the officers did not find drugs on him.
The officers then searched Carter’s car. When they opened the door, they detected a strong stench of marijuana. They found approximately 30 pieces of crack cocaine, some grams of marijuana, and a digital scale. In early 2007, Carter pled guilty to the charges stemming from this transaction. [ii]
Carter later appealed and argued that, in accordance with the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Arizona v. Gant [iii], the search of his vehicle incident to arrest was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
As a review, the Supreme Court, in Gant, held that the:
[p]olice may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, 351, 129 S. Ct. 1710, 1723, 173 L. Ed. 2d 485 (2009). [emphasis added] [iv]
Carter argued that he was not within reaching distance of his vehicle at the time of the search of his vehicle. He also argues, that there is no evidence related to his suspended license that could be found in his vehicle, just as was the case in Gant.
However, the Eleventh Circuit further noted that the Supreme Court, in Gant, stated that there can be multiple justifications for the warrantless search of an automobile. [v] One other possible exception to the warrant requirement is the “automobile exception.” The Eleventh Circuit stated:
Under the automobile exception, police officers may conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle if the vehicle is readily mobile and if they have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband. Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938, 940, 116 S. Ct. 2485, 2487, 135 L. Ed. 2d 1031 (1996) (per curiam); United States v. Watts, 329 F.3d 1282, 1286 (11th Cir. 2003) (per curiam). Accordingly, under the automobile exception, a vehicle search does not violate the Fourth Amendment if, “under the totality of the circumstances, there is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in the vehicle.” Tamari, 454 F.3d at 1261-62 (internal quotation marks omitted). [emphasis added] [vi]
In light of the above rule and the fact that the Supreme Court emphasized in Gant that a search would still be valid if some other justification for a warrantless search applied, the Eleventh Circuit held:
Because it is undisputed that the car was operational at the time of the arrest, and because we agree with the district court that Officer Petit had probable cause to believe that the car contained contraband, we find that the search was valid under the automobile search exception to the warrant requirement and did not violate the Fourth Amendment. See Tamari, 454 F.3d at 1261-62; Gant, 556 U.S. at 351, 129 S. Ct. at 1723-24. [vii]
As such, the court affirmed Carter’s conviction.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] No. 11-11867, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 11265 (11th Cir. 2012 Unpub)
[ii] Id. at 2-3
[iii] 556 U.S. 332 (2009)
[iv] Carter at 6
[v] Id. (citing Gant, 556 U.S. at 351
[vi] Id. at 5
[vii] Id. at 7