Alphonzo Garth and another man were sitting in a vehicle outside some apartments in West Point, Mississippi. Garth was in the driver’s seat and the other man in the passenger’s seat. Police were searching for the other man after a complaint that he had been involved in a disturbance at the apartments and was still outside, sitting in a vehicle.
The officers spoke to Garth, who provided identification to prove he was not the man they were looking for. When the officers went to speak to the passenger, one noticed that Garth had an open container of an alcoholic beverage between his legs. At this point, Garth exited the vehicle, hitting one of the officers with the door, and then attempted to strike the officer.
During the scuffle with police, Garth threw a clear plastic bag that contained something white, which was picked up by a bystander who escaped with it. Garth was arrested for assaulting the police officer and taken away from the scene. A drug sniffing dog was brought to look for narcotics, and, while walking past the driver’s door of Garth’s vehicle, it “alerted” to the presence of illegal drugs.
The officer attending the dog then opened the door and found what was later determined to be 37 grams of cocaine in a pocket on the driver’s door. The officers also found digital scales and an additional 2.7 grams of cocaine in the center console. The officers also found a large amount of cash in Garth’s pockets – more than $400.
Garth was convicted of possession of cocaine and sentenced to 25 years. On appeal, he argued the cocaine was found during a search incident to arrest in violation of U.S. Supreme Court case Gant v. Arizona, 556 U.S. 332 (2009).
Gant held that the search of a vehicle incident to arrest could only be undertaken if it is reasonable to believe that the arrestee might access the vehicle at the time of the arrest, or that the vehicle contains evidence of the crime for which the arrest is made. MCOA affirmed.
At no point, either at trial or on appeal, has the State ever argued that Garth’s vehicle was searched incident to his arrest.
In U.S. v Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982), the U.S. Supreme Court authorized a warrantless search of any area of the vehicle in which evidence might be found so long as there is probable cause and the car is in a public place.
In Shelton, we found that the automobile exception was justified when a drug dog alerted to marijuana found inside of the trunk.
In this case, it is clear that probable cause existed to search Garth’s vehicle. Garth assaulted an officer in an apparent attempt to divert attention so an accomplice could carry away what appeared to be illegal drugs.
After Garth was arrested, he was found to be carrying a large amount of cash, and a police dog trained to identify illegal drugs had indicated their presence near the driver’s door of the vehicle Garth had been occupying.
These circumstances form a substantial basis for the trial court to have found probable cause for a legal warrantless search of the vehicle.