Sunday, June 10th, 2007

No Warrant? No Problem!

United States v. Howard, Docket No. 06-0457-cr (2d Cir. June 5, 2007) (Jacobs, Leval, Sotomayor, C.JJ.). Here, on the government’s interlocutory appeal, the Court reverses the district courts order suppressing evidence obtained from the warrantless searches of two automobiles.

Facts: This case actually involves two unrelated, but factually similar, searches. In each case police officers had probable cause to believe that an automobile contained evidence of drug trafficking. Instead of obtaining search warrants, the officers stopped the automobiles on the highway, then used a ruse to lure the occupants away. In the occupants’ absence, the cars were searched and evidence was seized before the occupants were returned to the cars.

The district court suppressed the fruits of both searches, holding that, for various reasons, the automobile exception of Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443 (1971) did not apply.

Ruling: The Court of Appeals rejected all of the district court’s reasons for suppressing the evidence.

The lower court first held that, due to the defendants’ absence, the vehicles were not readily mobile, and hence Coolidge did not apply. The Court disagreed, because the automobile exception turns on the inherent mobility of all automobiles, and not on the particular facts of the case. There is no need for a finding of some additional exigency, such as the proximity of the occupants of the car, for the automobile exception to apply. The Court also remarked that the district court ignored entirely the secondary justification for the automobile exception: the reduced expectation of privacy in a car.

The district court’s second finding was that the police had ample time to obtain warrants. But, as the Court pointed out, the Supreme Court has held that a warrantless automobile search is reasonable as long as probable cause exists. Since a warrant is never necessary in this situation, the timing is irrelevant.

Finally, the district court held, citing Coolidge, that the failure to notify the vehicles’ occupants rendered the searches unreasonable, calling notice a “hallmark” of the automobile exception. The Court of Appeals found “no support” for this position in Coolidge. “The occupants’ lack of awareness that a search has been conducted does not necessitate either that a warrant be procured, or that the occupants be notified a search has taken place.”

Comment: In the end, it seems like the district court’s decision was fairly off the wall. One can surmise that it was a response to the utterly outrageous conduct of the police in these two cases. Unfortunately, outrageous and unreasonable are two different things when it comes to the Fourth Amendment.

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