As I explained in a post I did last fall, the vehicle exception is one of the principles that lets law enforcement officers search a place and seize evidence without first obtaining a search (and seizure) warrant.
As I noted in that post, the vehicle exception dates back to 1925, when the U.S. Supreme Court held, in Carroll v. U.S., 267 U.S. 132, that an officer didn’t need a search warrant to search a vehicle if he had probable cause to believe the vehicle contained evidence of a crime.
I also noted that the exception was originally premised on the fact that vehicles are mobile, which means a suspect could frustrate the officer’s ability to search his vehicle by driving it away while the officer’s trying to get the warrant. More recently, the Supreme Court has said the exception is also predicated on the diminished expectation of privacy we have in our vehicles; the Court said our expectation of privacy is diminished because we operate them in public, the interiors are open to public view and they are highly regulated by the government.
Enough background. As I noted in the post I did last fall, I’ve been looking for cases that apply the vehicle exception to an officer’s seizing (and maybe searching) a laptop he finds in a vehicle. In the case I wrote about last fall, the court didn’t decide if laptops – like other containers, such as briefcases and purses – come within the scope of the vehicle exception.
I’ve finally found a case that actually addresses this issue. The case is State v. Newman, 2010 WL 1528518 (Idaho Court of Appeals 2010) and this is how it arose:
Late one summer night, police were dispatched to a grocery store parking lot to investigate a report of suspicious activity at a nearby city park. The police were met at the parking lot by the victim and her husband, who had called the police after responding to an online advertisement for a free iPod. The victim told police she received e-mails from the person posting the ad directing her to come to the park after dark to retrieve the free iPod from a portable restroom. Feeling suspicious, the victim and her husband went to the park to investigate and saw two cars parked near portable restrooms. After watching the vehicles for fifteen to twenty minutes, the[y] . . . called the police.
The officers examined e-mails provided by the victim and indicated they would investigate the situation and retrieve the iPod if they located it in the park. Once in the park, the officers observed a vehicle matching the description given by the victim still parked next to a portable restroom. The vehicle had tinted windows, making it difficult for the officers to see if anyone was sitting inside. The officers searched a portable restroom and did not find an iPod. One officer approached the vehicle and knocked on the passenger-side window. [Stephen] Newman, who was seated in the vehicle, rolled down the window. The officer immediately noticed that Newman was sweating and wearing a black stocking cap. The officer questioned Newman about why he was at the park after closing and why he was wearing a black stocking cap on a hot summer night. Newman responded that he had been working on his laptop computer in the park for over an hour and later planned to do some exercises in the park. The officer asked Newman to step out of the vehicle and, as he was doing so, Newman appeared to hide something behind his seat. The officer questioned Newman about what he put behind his seat. Newman did not answer. The officer looked into the vehicle and saw what appeared to be a handgun. The officer also noticed a pair of black ski gloves and a laptop computer on the passenger side of the vehicle.
Newman was placed under arrest for being in the park after dark in violation of a city ordinance and for carrying a concealed weapon. Newman was handcuffed and placed on a nearby curb. The officers then performed a search of Newman's vehicle incident to his arrest. The officers seized a pellet gun hidden between two seats, a knife hidden under the pair of black ski gloves, some pieces of paper, a man's belt, and the laptop computer. The computer's contents were later searched pursuant to two search warrants. These searches revealed evidence linking Newman to the iPod advertisement and to the victim's e-mails as well as other evidence indicating that Newman planned to commit rape the night of his arrest.
State v. Newman, supra. Newman was charged with attempted rape in violation of Idaho Code §§ 18-306 & 18-6101(4). State v. Newman, supra.
He moved to suppress the evidence the officers found after they arrested him, “asserting that the search of his car violated the” 4th Amendment. State v. Newman, supra. The trial court denied the motion and a jury convicted Newman of attempted rape. State v. Newman, supra. He appealed, claiming the trial judge erred in denying his motion to suppress. State v. Newman, supra.
As the excerpt from the opinion quoted above notes, the officers relied on the search incident to arrest exception to the 4th Amendment to justify searching Newman’s car. State v. Newman, supra. As I explained in another post, the search incident exception lets an officer who’s arrested someone automatically search (i) that person and (ii) the area around him to which he could lunge and obtain a weapon or destroy evidence. When the officers searched Newman’s car, they were operating under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981), which held that when an officer arrests someone who was in a vehicle, the officer can automatically search the passenger compartment of that vehicle – including “containers” in the compartment – for evidence or to find and disable a weapon. As Wikipedia explains, in 2009, in Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. __, the Supreme Court held that when police arrest someone they “may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only if it is reasonable to believe that the arrestee might access the vehicle at the time of the search or that the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest.” On appeal, Newman claimed the search of his vehicle violated the 4th Amendment under the decision in Gant. State v. Newman, supra.
The Idaho Court of Appeals didn’t address Newman’s Gant argument because it found that “the search of Newman’s vehicle was valid under the automobile exception”, which was “dispositive of the issue at hand”. State v. Newman, supra. In other words, the Court of Appeals found that even if the search violated the 4th Amendment under Gant, which cut way back on the scope of a vehicle search based on the Belton search incident exception, it was valid under the automobile exception . . . and that resolved the issue. There was, therefore, no need to consider the validity of the search under the search incident exception.
For the search to have been valid under the vehicle exception, the officers had to have had probable cause to believe evidence of a crime would be found in Newman’s car. He claimed they didn’t have probable cause to believe evidence of “specific criminal activity” would be found in the car, but the Court of Appeals disagreed:
Newman's vehicle was parked in a city park after dark, which was not only unusual but also violated a city ordinance. Officers were dispatched to the park in response to a report of suspicious behavior involving e-mails soliciting the victim to come to that park late at night to retrieve a free iPod from a portable restroom. Newman's vehicle matched the description provided and was parked next to a portable restroom-in the exact location detailed in the e-mails. The officers searched a portable restroom and did not discover an iPod inside. Upon approach by the officers, Newman told police he had been working on his computer in the park for over an hour, which supported the victim's story. Newman's clothing and behavior were also unusual, as he was sweating and wearing a black stocking cap in July. . . . [and] were inconsistent with his explanation that he was going to exercise in the park on a hot summer night. The officers also noticed a pair of winter ski gloves on the passenger seat of Newman's vehicle. Once the police ordered Newman out of his car, Newman attempted to hide what appeared to be a handgun behind his seat so that officers would not discover it. Newman was then hesitant to answer the officer's questions about what he had hidden. . . .
[B]ased on the totality of the circumstances and the objective facts presented to the officers, probable cause existed to believe that evidence of a crime would be found in Newman's vehicle. Newman argues that, at the time of the search, the officers were not presented with sufficient information to support a finding that Newman intended to commit a particular crime. However, to establish that probable cause existed to search Newman's vehicle, the state was not required to show the officers knew whether the purpose of luring the victim to the park was to commit . . . assault, theft by trick, rape, kidnapping, murder, robbery, or any number of other possible crimes. All that was required was a showing that probable cause existed to believe that evidence of criminal activity would be found in the vehicle.
State v. Newman, supra. Having lost on that issue, Newman then argued that even if
the warrantless search of his vehicle was reasonable under the automobile exception, the laptop computer was unlawfully seized because the officers had no probable cause to seize such an ordinary item. However, in this case, there is a direct nexus between the computer and the suspected criminal activity. Newman admitted to officers that he was sitting in his car working on his computer around the same time that the victim reported receiving e-mails directing her to a portable restroom in the park. The e-mails triggered the investigation, and were the very means by which the victim was lured to the park in the first place. The suspicious circumstances of this case -- Newman's dress, demeanor, location, and gun -- coupled with Newman's admission to recently working on his laptop computer, created a direct nexus between the suspicious e-mails and Newman's computer. Because the search of Newman's vehicle was supported by probable cause to believe evidence of a crime would be discovered, and because the computer could reasonably be considered to be evidence of a crime, we conclude that the seizure of the computer was proper under the Fourth Amendment.
State v. Newman, supra. So Newman lost on that argument, too. If you’d like to see what he looks like and read a little more about the case, check out this news story.
There you have it: the automobile exception can justify the seizure of a laptop computer. As I assume you noted, the officers obtained search warrants authorizing a search of the laptop before they began looking through its contents. I, for one, think that’s the proper way to proceed . . . but I have a hard time justifying that view based on the way courts have interpreted the vehicle exception. As a federal district court judge noted, the vehicle exception lets officers search the vehicle and all its contents, so they can go through purses and other traditional “containers” they find in the vehicle. U.S. v. Blair, 2006 WL 2883119 (U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri 2006) (officers had the right to “search the vehicle, defendant’s purse, and it contents under the vehicle exception”). Why, then, should laptops be treated differently?