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A stalled car and the automobile exception in Mississippi

Facts

Samuel King and Mary Donelson, who owned and operated the Morocco Club (“Club”) in Jackson, Mississippi, were shot and killed during a robbery of the Club. At the time the fatal shots were fired, Cedric Body was standing about 100 yards from the Club.

Upon hearing the shots, Body turned and observed one young man standing outside the Club. Seconds later, a second young male who was doubled over exited the Club. The first man then left on foot and returned, driving a maroon car with a white top. At that point, the first man placed the second one into the car and drove away hurriedly. As the car left, Body noticed the trunk “flapping” up and down as if it were not shut.

Like Body, Alma Chambers, who lived directly across the street from the Club, informed police officers responding to the shootings that she had observed a two-door, 70’s model Chevrolet Malibu, maroon in color with a white top, leaving the Club shortly after the shots were fired.

Minutes later, a car fitting that description arrived at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (“UMC”). Sharrod Ray Moore was driving, and Marcus Walker, who was suffering from what was to become a fatal gunshot wound to the chest, was the sole passenger. Rather than driving to the emergency room (“ER”) entrance, Moore dumped Walker onto the road and attempted to leave hospital grounds. Moore’s car, however, stalled. Before Moore could leave, UMC officer Chris Peterman arrived and personally escorted Moore to the ER.

After detaining Moore, Peterman returned to Moore’s vehicle where he noticed, hanging from the car’s partially open trunk, a loose string which had apparently been used to tie down the trunk. Shining his flashlight into the trunk, Peterman saw bloody money. Peterman then shined the light in the passenger compartment and noticed the handle of a firearm protruding from under the driver’s seat.

Peterman testified that UMC officer John Gray, in his presence and pursuant to their supervisor’s orders, removed, without first obtaining a warrant, the gun from the car, emptied it, placed it in a plastic bag, and put it on top of Moore’s car.

Jackson Police Department (“JPD”) dispatched several officers to UMC. JPD officers further searched Moore’s vehicle, seizing $285 in bloody U.S. currency and three firearms, one of which belonged to Samuel King and which had fatally wounded Marcus Walker.

Subsequently, the officers informed Moore that he would be detained for questioning, and Moore became combative and had to be physically subdued by several officers. During questioning, Moore allegedly gave several different explanations for Walker’s injury.

Meanwhile, back at the Club, JPD investigators, who had begun searching for physical evidence, discovered signs indicating a robbery had occurred. The cash register, which had been opened, contained no paper money and only a few coins. Nearby, a Trustmark National Bank money bag containing a substantial amount of money was found. Investigators also retrieved three twenty dollar bills outside the Club.

Investigators also recovered other physical evidence at the Club including blood samples, fired projectiles, projectile jackets, and four fingerprints. John Dial, a JPD firearms examiner, testified that at least one projectile had been fired from one of the firearms seized from Moore’s car and that at least one projectile jacket matched those found in a second firearm seized from that vehicle.

In addition to the physical evidence presented at Moore’s trial, Andre Bully, Moore’s former cell mate at the Hinds County Detention Center, testified that Moore had confessed to the murders.

Moore was convicted of murder while engaged in the commission of robbery and sentenced to life. On appeal, he argued his vehicle was improperly searched. While MSC agreed that car was properly searched, they reversed case on other grounds.

Analysis

While the government generally is required to obtain a warrant prior to executing a search and seizing items therein, this court has carved out an “automobile exception” that allows officers to search a vehicle without a warrant when there is probable cause to believe that the vehicle itself may be evidence of crime or contain something that offends against the law.

In Franklin v. State, 587 So.2d 905 (Miss. 1991), we further held that the automobile exception applies even where the vehicle has been immobilized or is unmovable. The existence of probable cause should be determined based upon the totality of the circumstances.

UMC officers Peterman and Gray knew that the car had been used to bring a gunshot wound victim to the hospital and that, rather than taking Walker to the ER, Moore had put him out in the street and had attempted to leave hospital grounds. Additionally, Peterman and Gray observed blood-covered money in plain view in the trunk of the car and blood throughout the passenger compartment.

The fact that Moore’s car had become temporarily inoperable, does not, under this court’s previous holdings, provide Moore any relief. Based on the totality of the circumstances, the presence of the gun under the seat, coupled with the aforementioned circumstances, created probable cause for the officers to believe that evidence of a crime might be contained in the car, thus placing the search and seizure of said gun within the “automobile exception” to the warrant requirement.

Thoughts

While this is a great case, I would not try to expand this ruling beyond a stalled car like above. In other words, I would not use the automobile exception for a car that is up on blocks or for an RV that is hooked up to water and sewer, etc. With a stalled car, it might start working again and that explains why you could still use this exception and not get a warrant.

Remember that the automobile exception is used when a car is 1) readily mobile, 2) in a public place, and 3) you have probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime.

 

https://courts.ms.gov/images/Opinions/Conv10563.pdf