In 1990, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics (MBN) began a sting operation focused on Mervin Sanders which used informant Johnny Morris as their contact. Sanders was targeted by the bureau partially because he had sold Morris cocaine on many previous occasions.
As a part of this operation, Morris recorded several telephone calls with Sanders in which Sanders agreed to travel from Brookhaven, Mississippi, to New Orleans and get Morris an ounce of cocaine for $1,120. The two of them also agreed that Morris would supply Sanders with a car for the journey. Morris ultimately decided to lend Sanders his beige 1982 Mazda 626 four-door which was missing its left taillight.
MBN agents attached a “birddog” transmitting device to the Mazda designed to make following the car easier. Morris delivered the car to Sanders, who left Brookhaven that same day at about 5:30 p.m. The birddog tracked Sanders south on Interstate 55 until near Hammond, Louisiana. After they lost contact with the car, the agents met at the weight station at the Mississippi/Louisiana border and set up stationary surveillance points along Interstate 55.
At about 2:20 a.m., Agents Ronnie Frazier and Craig Oster spotted the beige Mazda traveling northward on the interstate with Sanders behind the wheel. Sanders was stopped just north of Osyka in Pike County by a highway patrol officer working with the narcotics team.
After the vehicle was stopped, Sanders was asked to get out of the car. Agent Oster then went to the Mazda’s right passenger’s door and opened it and the glove box. Inside the glove box he found a package containing one ounce of cocaine.
The officers did not have a search warrant nor had they attempted to obtain one. Sanders was convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and sentenced to 30 years. On appeal, he argued the search of the vehicle was illegal. MSC affirmed.
A warrantless search of an automobile has long been recognized as an exception to the warrant requirement provided probable cause and exigent circumstances exist. This exception is founded on the basic premise that for IV Amendment purposes there is a fundamental difference between houses and cars.
Frazier testified at length as to why he and his fellow agents thought they had probable cause to search Sanders’ car. Their informant, Johnny Morris, had recorded conversations with Sanders in which Sanders agreed to go to New Orleans and get Morris an ounce of cocaine for $1120, the agents knew the appearance of the car, its license plate number and its distinctive missing taillight, and the agents had been told by Morris that he and Sanders had made several similar transactions in the past. The agents had probable cause to believe that the promised illegal drugs would be somewhere in the car. The first part of the automobile exception was therefore satisfied.
The exigency prong excusing the issuance of a warrant are: 1) when the vehicle searched is in motion; 2) when the officers have probable cause to believe the vehicle contains contraband subject to search; and 3) when it is impracticable to secure a warrant because the vehicle can and may be removed from the jurisdiction.
Applying these criteria, the vehicle was in motion when the agents stopped it, the agents had probable cause to believe that the vehicle contained contraband, and finally, because the vehicle was apprehended close to the Mississippi/Louisiana border it could easily have been removed from Mississippi. The exigency requirement excusing the issuance of a warrant was satisfied by the facts of the case three times.
Even if it had been possible for one or more agents to have been taken off a surveillance which involved examining every northbound car on Interstate 55 over a period of several hours at night, the nearness of the state line and the ease with which Sanders could have fled the agent’s jurisdiction made getting a search warrant impracticable. The record demonstrates both that the agents had probable cause to believe that the car driven by Mervin Sanders contained cocaine and that an exigency existed which would allow a warrantless search. The admission of the fruits of this search was proper.