On August 19, 2020, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Beasley[i], in which the court examined whether a person who disclaimed ownership of a vehicle has a reasonable expectation of privacy in that vehicle such that he has standing to contest its warrantless search. The relevant facts of Beasley, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
Baltimore City Police officers on patrol in a marked police car observed two men seated in a parked Honda Acura. As the police car neared the Acura, both men ducked down and hid from view. This action aroused the suspicion of the officers, who stopped their vehicle and walked up to the Acura. As the officers neared the vehicle, they detected the odor of marijuana. One officer knocked on the window and asked to speak with the occupants. The officers observed Beasley crouched in the backseat and Avery Hawkins lying on his stomach in the front seat. The officers opened the passenger door and ordered the men to exit the vehicle. With the car door open, one officer observed the butt of a handgun on the floor of the front passenger seat. The officers also discovered marijuana in the vehicle. While conducting a search incident to arrest, officers found in Beasley’s pants pocket a key fob, which activated the vehicle parked behind the one in which Beasley had been a passenger prior to his arrest. Officers inquired whether that vehicle contained any drugs or guns. Beasley responded, “I don’t know, it’s not my vehicle.” The officers called a narcotics K-9 to the scene and the dog alerted on all four doors of the vehicle. The officers then conducted a search of that vehicle and discovered additional drugs. [ii]
Beasley was indicted for federal drug and gun violations. He filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained from the warrantless search of the vehicle that he was not seated in at the time of his encounter with the police but was in possession of the key fob for said vehicle. The district court denied Beasley’s motion. He was convicted by a jury and filed an appeal regarding the denial of his motion to suppress. [Note: He appealed other aspects of his case, conviction, and sentencing which this article will not discuss.]
The issue on appeal was whether Beasley had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the car to which he possessed the key fob but was seated in a different car, and when asked about the other car, he disavowed its ownership.
The court of appeals first discussed the relevant legal principles related to the issue at hand. The court stated
A search can violate an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights only when he has a legitimate expectation of privacy in the location searched. See Byrd v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 1518, 1526, 200 L. Ed. 2d 805 (2018). A person “normally has no legitimate expectation of privacy in an automobile in which he asserts neither a property interest nor a possessory interest.” United States v. Carter, 300 F.3d 415, 421 (4th Cir. 2002). The person challenging the search bears the burden of establishing a reasonable expectation of privacy in the searched area. United States v. Castellanos, 716 F.3d 828, 833 & n.4 (4th Cir. 2013).[iii]
In Beasley’s case, he was hiding in the backseat of a vehicle as another male hid in the front seat when the police detained and arrested him. The police located a key fob in his pants pocket during a search of the Beasley incident to arrest. The key fob activated the vehicle that was parked behind the one in which Beasley had been hiding. The officers asked Beasley if there were drugs or guns in the other car, and Beasley replied, “I don’t know, it’s not my vehicle.” A police canine alerted the vehicle for the presence of drugs and a subsequent warrantless search of the vehicle yielded additional drugs.
The court of appeals noted that this case was similar to their decision in the United States v. Washington[iv] in which officers asked the defendant if they could search his suitcase. The defendant replied, “It’s not my bag, I don’t care what you do.”[v] In Washington, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress because a person does not have a legitimate expectation of privacy in something in which he neither asserts an ownership or possessory interest.
As such, the court held that, since Beasley expressly disavowed ownership of the vehicle (and did not assert a possessory interest), he lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in the vehicle and did not have standing to contest the search.
Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
[i] No. 19-4241 (4th Cir. Decided August 19, 2020 Unpublished)
[ii] Id. at 1-3
[iii] Id. at 3 (emphasis added)
[iv] 677 F.2d 394 (4th Cir. 1982)
[v] Id. at 396