The so-called “War on Drugs” has resulted in the expenditure of enormous public resources and the imposition of harsh sentences upon many individuals engaged in relatively minor drug offenses. The broad scope of the “automobile exception” to the warrant requirement makes transporting narcotics or other contraband in your motor vehicle extremely risky.
An unreasonable search and seizure can justify the exclusion of evidence, and a warrantless search is presumed to be unreasonable unless a valid exception applies to the situation.
Our Minnesota criminal defense lawyers have been successful at defending people charged with crimes involving controlled substances and transporting narcotics by seeking the suppression of the illicit drugs, paraphernalia, and other evidence based on Fourth Amendment violations.
Recent Minnesota Court Ruling is Harsh Reminder to Motorists
A recent decision from the Court of Appeals of Minnesota, State v. Odette, 2016 WL 1081239 (MN Ct. of Appeals Unpublished), provides a cautionary tale for motorists considering transporting narcotics or other illegal items in a vehicle.
The police stopped the accused when he was speeding. The arresting officer, who had experience and specialized training with drug detection from time spent on a drug task force, smelled the odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle. A number of preliminary inquiries were made before the officer asked,”Where is the marijuana at?”
Although the accused denied having any marijuana, he gave the officer two pipes that appeared to contain marijuana residue. While the accused denied the presence of marijuana, the officer contended the driver “was very quick on his answers” and “shaking.”
The driver was asked to exit the vehicle and was told by the officer that he was being detained. The accused was not handcuffed when placed in the back of the squad car and was informed that he was not under arrest.
A search of the vehicle turned up three rolled dollar bills with a black tarry substance and more marijuana pipes. The motorist admitted the substance was heroin when asked. The accused sought suppression of the drugs and drug paraphernalia seized in the search, but after the request was denied, the accused was convicted.
Legal Breakdown of Why Transporting Narcotics in a Vehicle Increases Risk
On appeal, the accused challenged the legality of the search based on the contention that its scope was illegally expanded. The court first noted that a search that initially is valid can become unlawful based on expansion of the “intensity or scope” of the search. [Citations omitted].
The officers may expand the search if any of the following apply:
- Discovery of independent probable cause
- Incremental intrusion closely related to the original purpose of the stop
- Articulable facts creating reasonable suspicion of further illegal activity
The court found that the search was lawful under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. Under the automobile exception, a warrantless search is justified if the officer has probable cause to believe the vehicle contains contraband.
The accused contended that the automobile exception did not apply because the odor of marijuana and pipes containing residue did not constitute sufficient evidence to provide probable cause under the automobile exception.
However, the appellate court agreed with the trial court that the nervous behavior by the motorist, pipes produced during the stop, and the smell of marijuana emanating from the vehicle was sufficient to constitute probable cause justifying a search.
Fourth Amendment Protections are Limited when in a Motor Vehicle
The accused also challenged the search by arguing that probable cause did not exist to search for drugs other than marijuana. The court gave short shrift to this contention, indicating that the accused offered no legal authority for this position. The search for marijuana was not expanded in any way in terms of a search for other drugs reasoned the court.
While the accused argued there was no reason to unroll the dollar bills, the court argued that 1.4 grams of marijuana, which is sufficient to constitute a misdemeanor, could have been discovered within the rolled up dollar bill. The court also noted that the unrolling of the dollar bills could be justified based on the plain view exception to the warrant requirement.
The plain view exception permits an object to be seized without a warrant if:
- Officers observed the object when their presence was lawful
- Officers had the lawful right of access to the object
- Incriminating nature of the items was immediately apparent
The court reasoned that the officer’s observation of the black tar substance while the bills were rolled brought the unrolling of the bills within the plain view exception because the officer indicated he thought the substance was heroin.
The next argument made by the accused was that the officers failed to establish an exigency (emergency) supporting the warrantless search. This position also was rejected because reliance on the automobile exception made the existence of an emergency irrelevant.
The point to take away from this case is that the level of Fourth Amendment protection inside a vehicle is far more limited than in your home. Motorists should avoid transporting narcotics and other contraband in their vehicle because the police can much more easily search a suspect’s vehicle.
The difference in protection is so stark that there are even cases where officers have waited until an individual was inside his or her car before executing a warrantless search or seizure of a suspect’s person.
Seek Legal Advice Immediately
If you have been arrested and charged with a criminal offense in Minnesota, we invite you to speak to a Twin Cities Criminal Lawyer at Gerald Miller, P.A. as soon as possible. The sooner you contact us the sooner we can start protecting your rights.
Contact us today to schedule your free and confidential case evaluation.