©2012 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)
On August 6, 2012, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Lumpkins [i] which serves as an excellent lesson regarding the law pertaining to overdue rental cars and the rental car company’s authority to consent to a search of an overdue rental car. The facts of Lumpkins, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
On the afternoon of February 3, 2011, two officers of the Kansas City Police Department patrolling in a car observed a 2010 Ford Taurus with heavily tinted windows pass by. Because the officers believed the tint was sufficiently dark to violate a Kansas City ordinance, they followed the vehicle to investigate. The vehicle pulled into the driveway of a nearby residence, and the officers pulled in behind it and activated the emergency lights of the squad car. The driver, Lumpkins, exited the vehicle, looked at the officers, and started walking away at a casual pace. One of the officers made eye contact with Lumpkins and asked him to “come here,” and Lumpkins refused, replying that he was on private property. The officers placed him in handcuffs out of concern for officer safety. Because the side and rear windows of the vehicle were effectively blacked out, one officer looked through the front windshield of the vehicle “just to verify that we didn’t have a threat in the car.”
While verifying that the vehicle had no other occupants, the officer noticed a plastic bag holding a green leafy substance in the center console that appeared consistent with how the officer had “seen marijuana bags packaged in the past.” He also noticed what appeared to be a small marijuana blunt in the cup holder-ashtray area. The officers attempted to seize the contraband but discovered that the doors of the vehicle were locked and, in addition, that the keys to the vehicle were lying on the driver’s seat, locked inside.
The officers soon learned from a status check on the vehicle’s license plates that it was registered to Budget Rent-a-Car. It had been rented by Latisha Hughes. Lumpkins was not listed as an authorized driver. Hughes was present at the residence and came outside to talk to the officers, but she did not have a spare key and refused to give consent for the officers to enter the vehicle. The officers contacted Budget Rent-a-Car and explained the situation to Michelle Konecny, a local office manager. Konecny informed the officers that the vehicle was overdue for return and that Budget had been demanding its return from Hughes for several days. Konecny requested that the officers wait with the vehicle until she arrived to take custody of it.
When Konecny arrived, she showed the officers proof of ownership of the vehicle and unlocked it remotely with a spare set of keys. She then consented to a search of the vehicle. A drug dog which had been brought to the scene immediately alerted to the center console, and the previously observed marijuana was removed. The drug dog alerted again to the center console, however, and the officers discovered crack cocaine, powder cocaine, ecstasy pills, and more marijuana within the console. They also discovered a Herstal 5.7 x 28 handgun under the driver’s seat. The handgun was loaded with twenty rounds of ammunition capable of penetrating bullet-proof vests. [ii]
Lumpkins was indicted on federal gun and drug charges, and he filed a motion to suppress. The district court denied the motion to suppress and Lumpkins pled guilty with a right to appeal the denial of his motion.
Lumpkin raised two issues on appeal. His first issue was that the warrantless search of the car violated the Fourth Amendment because it was not based on a valid exception to the warrant requirement. His second issue was that he was “arrested” without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment when he was detained in handcuffs at the beginning of his encounter with the police.
As to the first issue, the court first stated that:
Voluntary consent from a third party with authority over a vehicle does not violate the Fourth Amendment. [iii]
Lumpkin argued that, even if Konecny (the rental car company manager), had authority over the vehicle and gave consent to search the vehicle, her consent did not override his and Hughes objection to the request for consent. Lumpkin based this argument on the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Georgia v. Randolph. [iv] In Randolph, the Supreme Court held that the consent to search a residence from one inhabitant of the residence could not override the express refusal of consent of another physically present inhabitant. However, the Eighth Circuit noted that it is not clear that Randolph would apply in the context of a vehicle consent search because the Supreme Court has, on numerous occasions, stated that vehicles are not to be treated identically with residences for Fourth Amendmentpurposes since the home is the center of people’s private lives. [v]
Further, the court observed that the rental agreement that was signed by Hughes stated the following:
If Renter fails to return the vehicle . . . within 24 hours following . . . oral demand . . . Renter will be deemed to be in unlawful possession of the vehicle…”[t]he vehicle may be repossessed . . . without notice if it . . . is used in violation of law or of this agreement.” [vi]
The court also noted that Lumpkin did not dispute the fact that the rental car company made a proper oral demand for the return of the vehicle on January 31 and the search took place afterwards on February 3. In light of the rental agreement and the undisputed fact that the oral demand was made for the return of the vehicle, the court stated that Konecny had the authority to take immediate custody of the vehicle and to give valid consent to a search of the vehicle. Thus, the court held:
Because consent for the search was validly obtained, the warrantless search of the vehicle did not violate the Fourth Amendment. [vii]
Lumpkins’ second issue was that he contends that he was unlawfully arrested (without probable cause) when he was immediately detained in handcuffs. He does not dispute that the police had the authority to stop him. As to this issue, the court noted that the district court held that Lumpkins was not arrested but rather subject to a reasonable detention in light of the totality of the circumstances that surrounded the officer’s encounter with Lumpkins. The Eighth Circuit, without deciding whether or not the immediate detention in handcuffs was reasonable, held that it was irrelevant as to the search whether Lumpkins was legally or illegally initially placed in handcuffs. This is because the search of the vehicle was based on valid consent from Konecny and was not the product or fruit of Lumpkin’s detention. Therefore, suppression of evidence would not be warranted even if the handcuffing of Lumpkin transformed the encounter into an unreasonable detention.
As such, the Eighth Circuit upheld the denial of Lumpkins’ motion to suppress.
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. 12-1348, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 16284 (8th Cir. Decided August 6, 2012)
[ii] Id. at 2-4
[iii] Id. at 5 (quoting United States v. Chavez Loya, 528 F.3d 546, 554 (8th Cir. 2008))
[iv] 547 U.S. 103 (2006)
[v] Id. at 7
[vi] Id. at 6
[vii] Id. at 7