Saturday, March 13th, 2010

Trailer Trashed

United States v. Navas, No. 09-1144-cr (2d Cir. March 8, 2010) (Leval, Wesley, CJJ, Gleeson, DJ)

In connection with a narcotics investigation, DEA agents watched the defendants unload a tractor-trailer at the Hunts Point Market. The defendants then drove it to a private warehouse, where they parked it, unhitched the cab, and lowered the legs in front of the trailer to stabilize it.

After further surveillance, the agents arrested the defendants, one of whom admitted that drugs were hidden in a rooftop compartment of the trailer. After receiving verbal consent to search the warehouse and its contents, but with no search warrant, the agents ripped open the roof of the trailer and discovered 230 kilograms of cocaine.

The district court suppressed the cocaine. It rejected the argument that the verbal consent to a general search of the warehouse extended to a physically invasive search of the trailer. The court also concluded that the automobile exception did not apply, holding that a stationary trailer stored in a warehouse, detached from its cab with its legs dropped, was not subject to the exception.

On the government’s appeal, the circuit reversed. After surveying the rationales underlying the exception – the inherent mobility of and reduced expectation of privacy in an automobile – the court held that the search of the trailer was permissible.

First, as to mobility, it is a vehicle’s inherent mobility, not the probability that it might actually be set in motion, that matters. Thus, the “trailer sans cab” could be treated as inherently mobile in the same way that, decades ago, the Supreme Court held that a “wagon without a horse” could be. The trailer had its own wheels, could have been connected to any cab and driven away, and its legs served only to stabilize it temporarily. Nor was it relevant that the defendants were all detained and the warehouse secured by the time of the search – those facts “had no bearing on the inherent mobility of the trailer itself.”

The circuit also found a reduced expectation of privacy in the trailer – an issue that the district court did not consider at all. The trailer was used for transportation, with no objective indicia of residential use. Moreover, the pervasive state and federal regulation of interstate commercial trucking further supported a reduced expectation of privacy.

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