On February 17, 2023, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Russell[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law pertaining to traffic stops, the Fourth Amendment and inevitable discovery.  The relevant facts of Friend are as follows:

One evening in August 2018, Montgomery police officers Anphernee Canty and Luke Carey were patrolling near the Ann Street interstate exit, “riding around, looking for crime, looking for things that might be suspicious,” and found themselves driving behind a 2004 Mercury Grand Marquis. Doc. 41 at 36.  While driving behind the car, Officer Canty asked his partner to run a compliance check on the Grand Marquis. According to Canty, nothing in particular drew his attention to the car—it just happened to be driving in front of the patrol car. The officers continued to follow the car while they ran the license plate through the state’s enforcement database, which alerted them that the car’s registration was suspended. When the car pulled into a gas station and stopped at a gas pump, the officers followed. The officers then activated the patrol car’s emergency lights and began a traffic stop.

Canty exited the patrol car, approached the vehicle, and informed the driver, Russell, that he had been stopped because the car’s registration was suspended. Canty directed Russell to hand over his driver’s license and proof of insurance. Russell handed Canty his license, said he did not have insurance, and responded that he did not have anything in the car. At this point, Canty had decided that he was going to have to tow Russell’s car because Russell did not have insurance. Canty also asked Russell whether there was “anything in the vehicle [Canty] should know about ahead of time.” Id. at 8.

Canty returned to the patrol car and ran Russell’s driver’s license through the state’s database, which alerted Canty that Russell’s license had been suspended. Canty contacted police dispatch to have them search the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database for alerts about Russell.

While waiting for dispatch to return results from the search, Canty went back to Russell’s car. Canty told Russell that the vehicle was going to be towed and asked Russell to exit the car. Russell complied and exited the car. Canty patted Russell down, found no weapons or drugs, and asked for a second time if he had anything in the vehicle that Canty needed to know about. At this point, Russell told Canty there was a small amount of marijuana in the car in the glove compartment inside the passenger’s side. Canty handcuffed Russell and escorted him to the backseat of the patrol car.

Canty searched Russell’s car. He found “narcotics” in the glove compartment, where Russell had said the marijuana would be. Canty returned to the patrol car, where Russell was in in the backseat, handcuffed. Canty asked Russell if he had previously been arrested or spent time in jail for marijuana. Canty then asked for the third time, whether there was anything else in the car. Russell admitted: “There’s a gun in there.” Doc 40-4 at 21:08:45-21:08:50 (Camera 2).

Canty and Carey searched the area of the car where Russell said the gun was located, immediately found it, and returned to the patrol car. At this point, they did not tell Russell that he was under arrest or advise him of his Miranda rights. Canty said something to Russell, and Russell twice stated, “don’t talk to me, man.” Id. at 21:10:06-21:10:23 (Camera 2).

A few minutes later, Canty tried to prompt Russell to speak again, saying, “[h]elp yourself out, you had a round and a magazine,” referring to the ammunition found in Russell’s car. Id. at 21:12:00-21:12:04 (Camera 2). After a few more minutes, Canty told Russell he was “[l]ooking at like four charges right now.” Id. at 21:14:14-17 (Camera 2). By this time, Russell had been sitting in the backseat handcuffed for a little more than 10 minutes. He began to complain about feeling hot in the back of the patrol car. He was sweating and asked for more air in the car or for a window to be opened. Canty responded that they had turned the air up all the way and told Russell he could not lie down with his head on the seat.

About 25 minutes after the stop began, the tow truck arrived. By then, neither Canty nor Carey had told Russell that he was under arrest or advised him of his Miranda rights. Shortly after the tow truck arrived, Canty asked Russell, “[h]ow long you been selling, man?” Id. at 21:26:29-21:26:31 (Camera 2). When Russell responded that he did not really sell marijuana, Canty retorted, “how long you been selling, don’t play with me.” Id. at 21:26:35-21:26:45 (Camera 2).

At that point, Canty told Russell he was under arrest and recited his Miranda rights. At the end of the admonition, Canty appended the question, “are you willing to answer any questions without an attorney present?” Id. at 21:27:55-21:28:08 (Camera 2). Russell responded, “no.” Id. at 21:28:13-14 (Camera 2). But Canty pressed forward, advising: “It’s simple man, like if you don’t wanna talk you ain’t gotta talk; if you want to talk you can; I’m not gonna force you,” and went on to say, “I’m gonna ask you a question. If you don’t want to answer you ain’t got to answer.” Id. at 21:28:18-21:28:36 (Camera 2). Russell stated that he did not want to speak with Canty.

Canty nevertheless continued to question Russell. He asked Russell how much marijuana he had in the car, whether he sold part-time, and whether he used the gun to assist him in selling drugs. In response, Russell admitted that he sold drugs sometimes, but mostly used the marijuana. Russell was then transported to the county jail.[ii]

Ultimately, Russell was charged with weapons violations under federal law.  He filed a motion to suppress, and the district court denied the motion.  Russell appealed the denial of the motion to suppress to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

On appeal, Russell argued that the automobile exception did not justify the search of his car and the discovery of evidence because he was not advised of his rights under Miranda at the time he told the officers that he had marijuana in the vehicle.

The court of appeals first discussed the legal principles related to the automobile exception and stated

The automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment permits a warrantless search of an automobile if (1) it is readily mobile, and (2) there is probable cause to believe that it contains contraband or evidence of a crime. United States v. Lanzon, 639 F.3d 1293, 1299-1300 (11th Cir. 2011). The first prong is satisfied if the car is operational. United States v. Lindsey, 482 F.3d 1285, 1293 (11th Cir. 2007). “Probable cause . . . exists when under the totality of the circumstances, there is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in the vehicle.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). If officers have probable cause to believe a car contains evidence of criminal activity, they may search every part of the car that may conceal this evidence. California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565, 569-70, 111 S. Ct. 1982, 114 L. Ed. 2d 619 (1991).[iii]

Here, Russell’s car was operational.  Additionally, the government argued that Russell’s admission, prior to being handcuffed and put in the back of the police car, that marijuana was in the vehicle provided probable cause to believe there was contraband in the vehicle.  Additionally, the court of appeals also noted

[I]t is well-settled law that “Miranda does not require the exclusion of physical evidence that is discovered on the basis of a voluntary, although unwarned, statement.” United States v. Jackson, 506 F.3d 1358, 1361 (11th Cir. 2007).[iv]

This means that even if the officers failed to provide Russell with Miranda warnings (assuming it was required for the sake of argument), as long as his statement was voluntary, the evidence that was discovered from the Miranda violation is not subject to suppression, even if the statement itself is suppressed.

However, the court stated that they did not need to analyze whether the statement was voluntary because the inevitable discovery doctrine allows the admission of the gun.    The court explained the inevitable discovery doctrine as follows:

[T]he Supreme Court observed that there is no rational basis to suppress evidence obtained by unconstitutional methods “if the government can prove that the evidence would have been obtained inevitably.” Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431, 447, 104 S. Ct. 2501, 81 L. Ed. 2d 377 (1984). Under the “inevitable discovery” or “ultimate discovery” exception, the government may introduce evidence that it obtained through an illegal search if it shows: (1) “by a preponderance of the evidence that if there had been no constitutional violation, the evidence in question would have been discovered by lawful means,” and (2) “that the lawful means [which made discovery inevitable were being actively pursued prior to the occurrence of the illegal conduct.” United States v. Watkins, 13 F.4th 1202, 1211 (11th Cir. 2021) (en banc) (internal quotation marks omitted). To meet the preponderance-of-the-evidence standard, the government need not show an “[a]bsolute certainty” that the evidence would have been discovered, just “that it is more likely than not the evidence would have been discovered without the violation.Id. And to meet the “active pursuit” prong, the government only must show “that the police would have discovered the evidence by virtue of ordinary investigations of evidence or leads already in their possession.” Id.[v]

In Russell’s case, the government argued that when the officers learned that Russell’s car did not have insurance, the officers called a tow truck to impound the vehicle.  The government further argued that the officers would have completed an inventory of the contents of the vehicle pursuant to the police department’s vehicle impound policy.  Therefore, the government argued that the officers would have inevitably found the gun and the marijuana.

Thus, the court of appeals held “the evidence would have been discovered inevitably through a lawful inventory search and thus properly denied the motion to suppress.”[vi]

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.

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Citations

[i] No. 21-14081 (11th Cir. Decided February 17, 2023)

[ii] Id. at 2-7

[iii] Id. at 15 (emphasis added)

[iv] Id. at 16 (emphasis added)

[v] Id. at 18-19 (emphasis added)

[vi] Id. at 21

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