Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The 4th Amendment and the “Blue Laptop-style Bag”

As Wikipedia explains, the 4th Amendment creates a right to be free from “unreasonable” searches and/or seizures.

As I’ve noted, to be “reasonable” a search and/or seizure must be conducted either to a validly-issued warrant or to an exception to the warrant requirement.

And as I’ve explained, a “search” violates a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” which essentially means that (i) I believed the place/thing that was searched was “private” and (ii) society accepts my subjective belief in the regard as objectively reasonable.

All of which brings us to State v. Williams, 2011 WL 3587386 (Washington Court of Appeals 2011). Jason Silva Williams was charged with and convicted of “two counts of possession of a controlled substance” and appealed, claiming his conviction was based on improperly admitted evidence that was the product of an unreasonable search. State v. Williams, supra.

This, according to the opinion, is how the case arose:

At approximately 1 am on March 26, 2008, Tacoma Police Officer Shelly Brown saw two men, sitting in a truck parked by the side of the road, get out of the truck and then saw the driver, later identified as Robert Rambo, grab a gas can. Brown pulled her patrol vehicle behind the parked truck, approached the men, and asked if everything was okay; she did not activate her emergency lights. Rambo [said] his truck did not work and someone was picking them up. He told her he picked up a gas can because his truck was out of gas.

Brown could see that the truck's gas gauge indicated it was almost half full. Brown asked Rambo if he had identification and he handed his driver's license to her; Brown wrote down his information and handed the license back to him. She similarly asked the passenger, [Jason] Williams, if he had identification. Williams gave Brown his identification; she wrote down his information and handed it back to him.

Brown returned to her vehicle and ran a records check on the men. A records check on Rambo came back clean, but Williams had a misdemeanor warrant for driving while under the influence. [Officer] Johnson, arrived and assisted with the arrest of Williams. After Brown told Rambo what was happening, Rambo told her a blue laptop-style bag sitting in the middle of the truck's bench seat belonged to Williams.

Brown picked up the bag and asked Williams if it belonged to him, which he denied. [She] searched the bag and found unspent ammunition, an unlabeled pill bottle containing oxycodone, coffee filters with methamphetamine residue, and a notebook.

State v. Williams, supra.

Williams was charged with unlawful possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver and unlawful possession of oxycodone. State v. Williams, supra. As I noted, he was convicted of both charges and appealed. State v. Williams, supra. His appeal was based on the argument that “the trial court erred when it denied his motion to suppress evidence seized following his arrest.” State v. Williams, supra.

More precisely, Williams argued that “Brown's warrantless search of the laptop bag was not justified by the search incident to arrest exception recognized in Gant because Williams was secured in the back of Brown's patrol car before she conducted the search.” State v. Williams, supra. The prosecution argued, on appeal, that “the search was lawful because (1) both Williams and Rambo `disavowed’ the bag and, therefore, relinquished any reasonable expectation of privacy in its contents, (2) as a valid search incident to Rambo's arrest, or (3) for officer safety.” State v. Williams, supra.

The Court of Appeals began its analysis by addressing Williams’ claim that the search incident exception to the 4th Amendment’s warrant requirement did not justify the search of the laptop bag (and the prosecution’s argument that it did). State v. Williams, supra. As the Court of Appeals noted, under the Supreme Court’s decision in Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009), “an officer may conduct a vehicle search incident to a lawful arrest when it is “‘reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.’“ State v. Williams, supra (quoting Arizona v. Gant, which quoted Thornton v. U.S., 541 U.S. 615 (2004)).

The court also noted that “[i]n cases other than where a recent vehicle occupant is arrested for a mere traffic violation, `the offense of arrest will supply a basis for searching the passenger compartment of an arrestee's vehicle and any containers therein.’” State v. Williams, supra (quoting Arizona v. Gant).

The Court of Appeals then held that the search incident exception did not apply:

Williams was arrested on an outstanding warrant for a completely unrelated misdemeanor. The trial court found that the warrantless search of the laptop bag occurred before Rambo's arrest. This fact is undisputed. Thus, the record shows that there was no arrest giving the officer a reasonable basis to reach into the vehicle, seize the laptop bag, and conduct the warrantless search.

Moreover, nothing in the record relates the contents of the laptop bag to the DUI warrant which authorized Williams's arrest. Accordingly, the search warrant exception for evidence of crime of arrest recognized in Gant does not apply to this case.

State v. Williams, supra (emphasis in original).

The Court of Appeals then addressed the state’s argument that the search was justified by a concern for officer safety, i.e., by an exigent circumstance. State v. Williams, supra. It noted that the “ rationale behind the exigent circumstances exception `”is to permit a warrantless search where the circumstances are such that obtaining a warrant is not practical because the delay inherent in securing a warrant would compromise officer safety, facilitate escape or permit the destruction of evidence.”’” State v. Williams, supra (quoting State v. Smith, 165 Wash.2d 511, 199 P.3d 386 (Washington Supreme Court 2009)).

The Court of Appeals explained that Officer Brown

arrested Williams and secured him in the back of a patrol vehicle prior to conducting the warrantless search of Rambo's truck. Rambo disavowed the laptop bag and there was no threat of the destruction of evidence. Nothing in the record supports a finding that there was any threat to the officers' safety and the trial court made no such finding. Accordingly, the State's argument that this search falls under the exigent circumstances exception fail.

State v. Williams, supra.

Finally, the prosecution argued that Officer Brown was

merely `impounding’ the bag from Rambo's car and that she was entitled to do so upon Rambo's disavowal and his claim that the bag belonged to Williams. According to the State, once the officer had impounded the bag, the officer had a right or even duty to conduct an inventory of its contents.

State v. Williams, supra.

As this site explains, when an officer has lawfully seized a vehicle or other property, the officer can conduct an inventory search of the property if the search is based on established official procedures and is limited to protecting police from claims that they lost or stole valuable items in the seized property and/or from possibly dangerous substances in the property.

Or, as the Court of Appeals explained, inventory searches are

recognized exceptions to the [4th Amendment’s] warrant requirement. . . . The purpose of the inventory search is not to discover evidence of a crime, but to perform an administrative or caretaking function. . . . Inventory searches are regularly upheld when they are conducted according to standardized police procedures which do not give excessive discretion to the police officers, and when they serve a purpose other than discovering evidence of criminal activity. . . .

It then explained that under the Washington Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Houser, 95 Wash.2d 143, 622 P.2d 1218 (1980),

when a closed piece of luggage in a vehicle gives no indication of dangerous contents, the officer cannot search the contents of the luggage unless the owner consents. Thus, absent exigent circumstances, a legitimate search only calls for noting the bag as a sealed unit.

State v. Williams, supra.

The Court of Appeals consequently found that

[h]ere, just as in Houser, there was no indication that the closed laptop bag contained dangerous contents justifying special inventory. Accordingly, we reject the State's argument that the search was lawful under the inventory search exception.

State v. Williams, supra.

As a result, the court held that the prosecution had failed

to meet its burden to prove that Officer Brown's warrantless search and seizure of the laptop bag falls into any recognized exception to the search warrant requirement. . . . [W]e hold that the trial court erred when it concluded that the warrantless search and seizure of the laptop bag was lawful and improperly admitted the contents of the laptop bag as evidence at trial.

State v. Williams, supra.

The court therefore reversed Williams’ conviction and remanded the matter “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.” State v. Williams, supra.


Anonymous said...

Williams denied that the bag was his, so how could he claim a reasonable expectation of privacy in the bag?

Susan Brenner said...

"[W]e reiterate that passengers have automatic standing to challenge the search and seizure of a driver's automobile where they are charged with possessory offenses supported by evidence discovered in the vehicle. See, e.g., State v. Coss, 87 Wn.App. 891, 895–96, 943 P.2d 1126 (1997), review denied, 134 Wn.2d 1028 (1998). The automatic standing doctrine confers standing on anyone charged in a possessory crime, eliminating the requirement to show a legitimate expectation of privacy. Coss, 87 Wn.App. at 895–96."

State v. Williams, 2011 WL 3587386.

Marie Owens said...

I tried finding your contact information, but couldn't so I apologize for leaving a comment. Do you accept guest writers? I am very interested and I have a great topic in mind that I believe you would like.

Susan Brenner said...

Sorry, Marie . . . I'm afraid I don't feature guest writers.

You might try one of the other cybercrime blogs.

Good luck.