On January 5th, 2015, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Webster [i], which answers the question of whether suspects have a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding conversations in the caged area of a patrol vehicle.
In Webster, on or about March 11, 2011, officers went to a residence in South Bend, Indiana in response to an anonymous tip. As officers approached the house they heard a door shut on the side of the house. Officers went to that area and found Webster as he exited the house. He smelled of marijuana and there was an odor of marijuana emanating from the house. Webster also had $2,296 in cash on his person. Additionally, two other persons fled from the house as the officers approached. Webster was detained approximately two and a half hours in the caged, back seat of a patrol vehicle as officers obtained and executed a search warrant. During that time and officer was in the car with Webster most of the time. However, during some time when the officer exited his car, Webster engaged in a conversation with another suspect and made several phone calls, in which incriminating statements were made. These conversations were recorded on the patrol vehicle’s interior microphone and later introduced as evidence against Webster regarding drug and firearms charges.
Webster was later convicted and he appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. One of his issues was whether the trial court erred in admitting the recordings of his conversations he had in the patrol vehicle. On appeal, Webster argued that he had a Fourth Amendment reasonable expectation of privacy in the rear, caged portion of the patrol vehicle, and as such, recording those conversations were a violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment.
The Seventh Circuit first stated:
A reasonable expectation of privacy exists when the defendant manifested a subjective expectation of privacy and society recognizes that expectation to be reasonable. United States v. Walton, 763 F.3d 655, 658 (7th Cir. 2014). Therefore, it contains both a subjective and objective component. [ii]
The subjective component simply means that the individual suspect believed that he or she had an expectation of privacy in the place searched, or conversation recorded, as in this case. The court noted that Webster did have a subjective expectation of privacy in caged area of the police car during his conversations. This was evidenced by the fact that he did not make incriminating statements until the officer exited his patrol car. However, that is only half of what is needed to implicate the protection of the Fourth Amendment.
The second component needed is the objective expectation of privacy. This objective component means that the expectation of privacy possessed by the individual suspect is one which society accepts as reasonable. If so, the suspect has a “reasonable expectation of privacy” that is protected by the Fourth Amendment.
The Seventh Circuit, noting that they had not decided this issue in the past, looked at how other federal circuit courts of appeal have decided this issue. They noted that, over the last 20 years, the First, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits have held that a suspect does not possess a reasonable expectation of privacy in conversations that take place in the rear seat of a patrol vehicle [iii]. The court examined the rationale used by these other circuits. First, the court noted that squad cars contain numerous electronics and recording devices, which should be apparent to occupants. Second, the court noted that it is common knowledge that police cars possess video and audio recording equipment. Third, the rear seat of patrol vehicles have been recognized by some circuits as the mobile office of a police officer and the back is akin to a temporary jail.
After a review of these cases, the court stated:
Given the nature of the vehicle and the visible presence of electronics capable of transmitting any internal conversations, the expectation that a conversation within the vehicle is private is not an expectation that society would recognize to be reasonable. We agree with those circuits, and hold that conversations in a squad car such as the one in this case are not entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy, and therefore the recording of the conversation is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. [iv]
As such, the court held that the recording of Webster’s conversations in the caged, rear seat of the police vehicle did not violate the Fourth Amendment and were admissible in court.
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. 13-1927 (7th Cir. Decided January 5, 2015)
[ii] Id. at 8-9
[iii] Id. at 9 (See United States v. Dunbar, 553 F.3d 48, 57 (1st Cir. 2009); United States v. Turner, 209 F.3d 1198, 1200-01 (10th Cir. 2000); United States v. Clark, 22 F.3d 799, 801-02 (8th Cir. 1994); United States v. McKinnon, 985 F.2d 525, 527-28 (11th Cir. 1993); United States v. Fridie, 442 Fed. Appx. 839, 841 (4th Cir. 2011)(unpublished); United States v. Carter, 117 F.3d 1418 (5th Cir. 1997)(unpublished).
[iv] Id. at 10