On April 22, 2016, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Pina [i], which serves as an excellent review of the law pertaining to vehicle searches and searches of luggage.  The relevant facts of Pina, taken directly from the case, are as follows:

On October 15, 2012, Trooper Joseph Harrison of the Florida Highway Patrol observed an El Expreso bus that had stopped at a TA TravelCenter en route from Texas to Florida. The trooper obtained the passengers’ consent to search their luggage. When Trooper Harrison noticed an oversized metal can of food inside Pina’s suitcase, he remembered reading an intelligence bulletin that stated heroin had been concealed inside canned goods that appeared to be factory sealed. Trooper Harrison released the occupants of the bus without incident.

The morning of October 27, 2012, Trooper Harrison visited a TA TravelCenter and encountered another El Expreso bus on which Pina happened to be traveling from Texas to Florida. Around 8:38 a.m., the bus driver gave his permission for a police canine and his handler, Trooper Christopher Porter, to walk around the exterior of the bus. The canine indicated that he detected drugs on the bus. With consent from the driver and all the passengers, Trooper Harrison unloaded the luggage from the undercarriage of the bus to enable the canine to smell each suitcase.

The canine alerted on Pina’s suitcase, which Pina allowed Trooper Harrison to search. Inside the suitcase, Trooper Harrison noticed two large metal cans labeled as containing whole jalapeno peppers and whole serrano peppers and recalled that Pina had a large metal can among his belongings two weeks earlier. The trooper shook the cans. When Trooper Harrison heard the sound of liquid sloshing without any “flopping” of food, he asked for permission to unseal the cans, but Pina refused. Trooper Harrison opened one can and saw a large black cylinder, which he thought contained contraband, floating in liquid. At 9:41 a.m., Trooper Harrison arrested Pina and released the remaining passengers.

Troopers Harrison and Porter transported Pina and the two metal cans to an office of the Drug Enforcement Agency in Panama City, Florida. Around noon, Trooper Harrison observed a federal agent open the sealed can, remove a cylinder from the can, and test samples of the substances concealed inside both cylinders. The substances tested positive for the presence of cocaine. [ii]

Pina was charged with drug offenses under federal law.  He filed a motion to suppress and argued that the warrantless search of his luggage violated the Fourth Amendment. The district court denied his motion.  Pina appealed the denial of his motion to suppress to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

On appeal, Pina argued that the Troopers needed a search warrant to search the contents of his suitcase because the automobile exception, which normally allows for the warrantless search of an automobile and its contents based on probable cause, did not apply because when he and his luggage were removed from the bus the exigency had passed and therefore a search warrant was required.  Regarding whether the automobile exception applied to the search, the Eleventh Circuit stated:

The search of the commercial bus and the passengers’ luggage was lawful under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. “[A] vehicle search [does] not violate the Fourth Amendment . . . where agents conduct a warrantless search[] if the vehicle is operational and under the totality of the circumstances, there is a fair probability that contraband . . . will be found in the vehicle.” Tamari, 454 F.3d at 1261-62. Troopers Harrison and Porter and the police canine received permission from the bus driver to examine the exterior of the bus. When the canine alerted to the odor of drugs inside the bus, which Pina does not dispute was “readily mobile,” the troopers had probable cause to search the bus and every piece of luggageId. at 1264-65; United States vWatts, 329 F.3d 1282, 1286 (11th Cir. 2003). And the response of the canine to Pina’s suitcase further justified the troopers’ decision to search Pina’s suitcase.

Trooper Harrison was entitled to open the metal can he found inside Pina’s suitcase. “The scope of a warrantless search [under the automobile exception] is not defined by the nature of the container in which the contraband is secreted. Rather, it is defined by the object of the search and the places in which there is probable cause to believe that it may be found.” United States vRoss, 456 U.S. 798, 824 (1982); see Lindsay, 482 F.3d at 1293. The canine’s reaction to Pina’s suitcase and Trooper Harrison’s knowledge that drugs had been hidden inside canned foods gave him probable cause to believe that Pina had concealed drugs inside the cans. The trooper was justified in opening a can to examine its contents. [iii] [emphasis added]

The court also addressed the fact that the automobile exception’s justification for the warrantless search did not vanish once Pina was removed from the bus.  Rather, the luggage had been part of the bus when the canine first alerted on the bus so there was probable cause to search the bus and that did not vanish when Pina was removed from the bus.  The court stated:

The automobile exception applied even though the troopers opened the metal can after detaining Pina and his suitcase. “[T]he justification to conduct . . . a warrantless search does not vanish once the automobile has been immobilized” or when the suspect can no longer “tamper[] with” the evidence. United States vParrado, 911 F.2d 1567, 1571 (11th Cir. 1990) (quoting Michigan vThomas, 458 U.S. 259, 261 (1982)); see United States vBirdsong, 982 F.2d 481, 483 (11th Cir. 1993). Probable cause “justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search,” Ross, 456 U.S. at 825, and Trooper Harrison had probable cause to believe that there was contraband inside the cans he discovered in Pina’s suitcase. See Maryland vDyson, 527 U.S. 465, 467 (1999) (The “finding of [probable cause] alone satisfies the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.”). [iv] [emphasis added]

As such, the Eleventh Circuit held that the Trooper did not violate the Fourth Amendment by searching the contents of Pina’s suitcase without a warrant.


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. 15-13542  (11th Cir. Decided April 22, 2016 Unpublished)

[ii] Id. at 3-5

[iii] Id. at 5-6

[iv] Id. at 6

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