On January 5th, 2016, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Daniel [i], which serves as an excellent review concerning probable cause and the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. The relevant facts of Daniel, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
On the evening of February 14, 2013, Officers Britten and Gaddis of the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department observed a black Ford Explorer parked in what they considered a “high narcotics area.” A black male was sitting in the back of the vehicle, and the officers saw him engage in what appeared to be a hand-to-hand drug transaction with a man standing outside of the vehicle. Britten, an experienced officer, testified that the two men were clearly “handing stuff back and forth” in a manner that suggested a drug sale. Rather than stop the men immediately, the officers drove around the corner to run a computer check on the vehicle’s license plate. The check revealed that the vehicle was registered to an address associated with Brian Daniel, a man for whom there were two outstanding arrest warrants. The physical description of Daniel matched the man sitting inside the vehicle.
The officers returned and approached Daniel as he was walking away from the vehicle. After Daniel gave the officers his name and date of birth, Britten returned to the patrol car to confirm that this information matched the warrants. From inside the patrol car, Britten saw Daniel walk a few steps away from Gaddis and discard a plastic baggie. The officers then placed Daniel in handcuffs and retrieved the baggie, which appeared to contain illegal drugs. Later testing confirmed that the baggie contained controlled substances.
After handcuffing Daniel, Gaddis alerted Britten to an odor coming from Daniel’s vehicle. Britten recognized the odor as the smell of “fresh marijuana, unburnt marijuana.” Based on the smell, the drugs in the discarded baggie, and the observation of a hand-to-hand transaction, the officers searched Daniel’s vehicle. Before searching the vehicle, the officers asked whether Daniel had a weapon in the vehicle; Daniel said he did not. The search uncovered a loaded Sig Sauer .40 caliber handgun stuffed between the driver’s seat and center console, as well as a backpack containing approximately 450 grams of marijuana and drug-trafficking paraphernalia. One of the officers was heard saying on the video recording that the marijuana was what they had smelled earlier. [ii]
Daniels was ultimately indicted for violations of federal law associated with this incident. He filed a motion to suppress the firearm and drugs and alleged that the warrantless search of his vehicle violated the Fourth Amendment. The district court denied the motion and he pleaded guilty with the right to appeal. He then filed a timely appeal with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The issue on appeal was whether the warrantless search of Daniel’s vehicle violated the Fourth Amendment.
The Eighth Circuit, in noting the law regarding this issue, stated:
The Fourth Amendment forbids unreasonable searches and seizures. It is well settled that a warrantless search of an automobile is not unreasonable if law enforcement officers have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity. United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 823-24 (1982). Probable cause exists when the facts available to an officer would warrant a person of reasonable caution to believe that contraband or other evidence of a crime is present. Florida v. Harris, 133 S. Ct. 1050, 1055 (2013). [iii] [emphasis added]
The court then examined facts relevant to the issue of whether the police had probable cause to believe Daniels’ vehicle contained evidence of a crime. First, the court noted that the police observed Daniels behave in a manner consistent with a hand-to-hand drug transaction while he was inside his vehicle. Second, the police observed Daniels discard a baggie of illegal drugs while he was outside of his vehicle. Third, the police testified that they smelled the odor of fresh marijuana emanating from the vehicle prior to their search. The court then stated:
These facts gave the officers ample reason to believe that the vehicle contained marijuana or other evidence of drug-related activity. See United States v. Brown, 634 F.3d 435, 438 (8th Cir. 2011); United States v. Davis, 569 F.3d 813, 817-18 (8th Cir. 2009); United States v. Neumann, 183 F.3d 753, 756 (8th Cir. 1999). [iv]
On appeal, Daniels argued that the officers did not really smell the marijuana prior to searching his vehicle. However, the court of appeals stated that, unless clearly contradicted by evidence, they could not overturn the finder of fact (district court) on that issue. Further, they noted that there was evidence to support the officer’s testimony, particularly; one officer could be heard on video, after finding the marijuana in the vehicle, saying words to the effect of, “this is what we smelled earlier.”
Lastly, Daniels argued, along the same line above, that the sole purpose of the officer’s search of his vehicle was to investigate whether he had a weapon. The court stated:
[U]nder the Fourth Amendment, the subjective motives of the police are not controlling. The dispositive question is whether the police had probable cause to believe that the vehicle contained evidence of criminal activity. [v] [emphasis added]
In other words, the Fourth Amendment is satisfied by “objective reasonableness” rather than the subjective (personal) beliefs or motives of the officers. Since, viewed objectively, probable cause to believe the vehicle contained contraband was present in this case, the search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the 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. 15-1133 (8th Cir. Decided January 5, 2016)
[ii] Id. at 1-3
[iii] Id. at 3
[iv] Id. at 4