Consent to search is a valid exception to the search warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. However, law enforcement officers must keep in mind that where and what they can search under such consent is limited by the scope of the consent provided. Typically, the scope of the consent is determined by what a reasonable person would believe is the object of the search or in the alternative, specific statements made by the officer or the person providing consent. Recently, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided Winfield v. Trottier [i] in which they were faced with the issue of whether reading a person’s mail was within the scope of consent to search a car.
In Trottier, a Vermont State Police officer was on patrol, and he conducted a traffic stop on Marie Winfield. Her son, Jason, was a passenger in the car. As the trooper was awaiting NCIC returns, he asked for, and received valid consent to search her car, telling her that he perceived that she was acting nervous. Particularly, the trooper stated “Okay. Okay. There’s nothing in there I should know about is there? No guns or money?” Ms. Winfield replied, “You can look if you want.” The trooper then replied, “Oh you don’t mind? Do you mind? No–no large sums of money in there or–no? Okay.” The trooper then conducted a search of the vehicle and found an envelope. He opened the envelope, saw it did not contain drugs or money and then read the contents of the mail. It was court paperwork for Ms. Winfield’s husband regarding a previous case. The trooper found no contraband and released the Winfield’s with a citation for speeding.
The Winfield’s then sued the trooper for a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights when he read the mail during the consent search. The district court denied qualified immunity for the trooper and he appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
At the outset, it is important to discuss qualified immunity. Typically, there is a two part analysis done by the court when determining qualified immunity. First, the court will examine whether or not a constitutional right was violated. If not, then the officer is granted summary judgment and the suit is dismissed. However, if there was a violation, the court then moves on to the second part of the immunity analysis, which is to determine whether the right was “clearly established” at the time of the alleged constitutional violation. [ii] The courts consider a right “clearly established” as long as it would be sufficiently clear to the officer from pre-existing case law that what he or she did was a constitutional violation. [iii]
Thus, in determining whether the trooper was entitled to qualified immunity in this case, the court first set out to determine whether he violated the Fourth Amendment when he read the Winfield’s mail during the consent search. In answering this question, the court first noted several principals regarding consent searches. The principals are follows:
When a person consents to a search of his car, he should reasonably expect that easily opened, closed containers discovered inside the car will be opened and searched. see United States v. Snow, 44 F.3d 133, 135 (2d Cir. 1995). [iv]
A suspect can limit the scope of the search to which he consents.
In determining whether a particular object was within the scope of consent the question to ask is “what would the typical reasonable person have understood by the exchange between the officer and the suspect?” Id. at 251. [v]
The scope of a consent search is normally defined by the expressed object of the search.
Regarding Winfield’s consent, the court noted that the trooper asked to search for anything illegal, therefore the scope was not necessarily limited to just the specifically mentioned “drugs” and “money.” However, the court noted that nothing the trooper said gave any indication that he was looking for consent to read the contents of her mail. Specifically, the court stated
The Fourth Amendment specifically protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their . . . papers.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. Reading a person’s personal mail is a far greater intrusion than a search for contraband because it can invade a person’s thoughts. See United States v. Dichiarinte, 445 F.2d 126, 130 n.4 (7th Cir. 1971) Given this greater intrusion, the typical reasonable person would not assume that consent to a general search of a car for contraband would include consent to read personal papers. Once Trottier opened the envelope and discovered neither large sums of money nor contraband, he should have moved on to search the rest of the car. Trottier exceeded the scope of Winfield’s consent when he read the letter. [vi]
As such, the court held that it was a constitutional violation for the trooper to read Winfield’s mail.
The court next set out to determine if the law was clearly established at the time of the violation such that another reasonable law enforcement officer would have known it was unlawful to read mail based on that general consent to search. To this issue, the court held
No prior case in the Second Circuit has so held. Accordingly, Trottier’s actions were “‘objectively legally reasonable in light of the legal rules that were clearly established at the time it was taken,'” X-Men Sec., Inc. v. Pataki, 196 F.3d 56, 66 (2d Cir. 1999) (alterations omitted) (quoting Anderson, 483 U.S. at 639),and he is entitled to qualified immunity. [vii]
As such, since there was no case law from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals or the United States Supreme Court that would have placed the officer on notice that his conduct was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, the officer is entitled to qualified immunity from suit in this case.
Law enforcement officers, especially in the Second Circuit, should note from this case forward, it is unlawful to read mail during a consent search unless included within the scope of the consent to search.
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] 710 F.3d 49; 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 4635 (2nd Cir. 2013)
[ii] See Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232 (2009)
[iii] Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635 (1987)
[iv] Id. at 11
[v] Id. at 11-12
[vi] i.d at 14-15
[vii] Id. at 18