Police unlawfully searched car passenger’s purse.

In a great win for the Fourth Amendment, the Second District Court of Appeals upheld a trial court’s ruling that suppressed evidence obtained as the result of the search of a car passenger’s purse.  In State v. Caulfield, the defendant was a front-seat passenger in a car that was pulled over when a member of the Montgomery County, Ohio sheriff’s department noticed the license plate was completely covered in snow and, therefore, obstructed from viewing (which is a no-no).  Upon effectuating the traffic stop, the officer ran the driver’s information through the LEADS system (a database that provides real-time information to law enforcement regarding persons they encounter).  The LEADS system indicated the driver had a suspended license and an active warrant for his arrest.

The officer then arrested the driver on the outstanding warrant and subsequently received his consent to search the vehicle he was driving.  In the meantime, a second officer that had arrived on the scene approached the defendant and instructed her to exit the vehicle so that he may perform the search authorized by the driver’s consent.  When the defendant attempted to bring her purse with her as she exited the car, the officer instructed her to leave the purse inside the car on the passenger seat.  This is common for the police to do, as it is much easier to justify searching objects within a car.

Although the officers testified at the hearing that the defendant had also provided them consent to search her purse, the trial court found the defendant’s contradictory testimony credible, and made a factual finding that she did not consent to the warrantless search.  And, as a lesson to all readers, never provide consent to a search of your property, especially if you know the police are going to find something you would rather they don’t.  And Caulfield’s refusal to provide consent paid off in her case (if she were even asked) – the police ultimately located various drugs and drug paraphernalia in her purse and she was escorted to the pokey in short order.

So, if the trial court found that the defendant had not consented to the search, under what theory did the state appeal the trial court’s ruling?  The state also argued on appeal that the search was lawful as a search incident to arrest of the driver, and that the search was reasonable for “officer safety.”  Under modern Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, if the police effectuate a lawful custodial arrest, they are permitted to perform a search of the person arrested for weapons or contraband, as well as areas within the immediate vicinity of the arrest to ensure the defendant does not grab a weapon or destroy evidence.

The search-incident-to-arrest exception also extends to cars in which arrested persons are or were recently located.  However, the arrested person must actually be able to reach the interior of the car in order for that exception to apply.  Here, the driver was already handcuffed and placed in the police cruiser before the officers searched the inside of his car. It would have been quite a feat for him to grab a weapon from Caulfield’s purse from the back of the cruiser.  Nonetheless, with a straight face, the government actually argued that the search of the purse was necessary for officer safety as they arrested the driver.  Luckily, the appellate panel here correctly followed the Supreme Court’s decision in Arizona V. Gant, which explains that in order to invoke the search-incident-to-arrest exception, the person arrested must actually be able to reach places officers fear may contain a weapon.  Yes, sometimes logic does win out.

There was one final hurdle for the defendant, though: what effect did the driver’s consent to search his car have on the situation? Could that justify the search of the purse?  The answer was obviously no.  The appellate court found that the driver’s consent to search the interior of his car did not extend to the passenger’s purse located within the car (at officer direction, remember).  In order for consent to be lawful, the person providing the consent must have the authority over the area to be searched.  In other words, just as you can’t consent to the search of your neighbor’s house, the defendant’s male accomplice in this case was without authority to provide police consent to search her purse.

In summation, the Second District properly found that no justification existed for the search of an innocent passenger’s purse.  Just because she was riding around with some guy that had an outstanding warrant and failed to properly display his license plate, police cannot simply decide they are going to search her personal property.  I’m sure this was news to the police as they are not used to being told “no,” whether it’s by citizens or courts.

Published by Charles W. Morrison on August 3, 2013.

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