Police can move car before obtaining search warrant if they have probable cause

Facts

In 2005, Vicksburg police responded to a report of a dead female lying face down next to a garbage dumpster at the Vicksburg Hotel, an apartment complex in downtown Vicksburg. Officer Billy Brown and Sergeant Virgil Woodall determined: 1) the deceased was Chenara Young, 2) she died of blunt force trauma, and 3) due to Young’s size and the blood smears and lack of blood pooling near the body, it was likely she had been moved to this location. They suspected that a vehicle had been used in moving the body.

Eight hours after the discovery of Young’s body, Officer Daniel Thomas responded to a complaint of a suspicious truck that was parked across from a sports bar where another car usually parked. Thomas observed what appeared to be a bloody smear and drip marks on the tailgate and in the bed of the truck. The driver’s side front seat cover had been removed, and there was a large red stain on the Styrofoam padding of the seat.

The seat cover was bundled up in the truck’s bed. The truck was located less than two blocks from the location where Young’s body was found. Sergeant Woodall was called to the scene and determined that the substance could possibly be blood.

Based on the truck’s proximity to the crime scene, the substance located on the truck, the stain on the driver’s seat, the suspicion that a vehicle was used in the crime, and the absence of the truck’s owner, the officers had the truck towed half a block away to the city’s impound lot to be secured until further tests could be done and a search warrant could be obtained. No tests were done at the truck’s original location to determine if the substance was blood.

The next morning, a group of investigators did a presumptive blood test and determined that the substance on the truck’s tailgate was, in fact, blood. Then, they obtained a search warrant for the vehicle. Inside the vehicle, they found a wallet belonging to the defendant, William Brown. The truck was titled in another individual’s name without any evidence that it had been signed over to Brown.

Officers were able to determine that Brown lived at the Vicksburg Hotel, and they obtained a search warrant for his apartment. Upon execution of the search warrant, officers discovered blood stains and spatters on the living room carpet and walls, bloody clothing and pillows in the living room, human feces on the living room carpet, bloody clothes and shoes in the bedroom closet, and blood in the bedroom and bathtub. The blood was later analyzed and determined to be Young’s blood.

Brown was arrested and waived his Miranda rights. He stated that Young, who he did not know, offered him sex for money. He declined that offer but they agreed to smoke crack at his apartment. They were met by another unknown man who argued with Young about the drugs and then killed her with a baseball bat. Fearing Brown would be implicated, Brown moved the body to the parking lot.

Brown was convicted of murder and sentenced to life. On appeal, he argued his vehicle was seized without probable cause. MCOA affirmed.

Analysis

A. Standing

The State argued Brown had no standing to object to the search of the truck since he did not own it.

In United States v. Lee, 898 F.2d 1034 (5th Cir. 1990), the U.S. 5th circuit said that the question of whether a defendant can claim the protections of the Fourth Amendment hinges not upon a property right in the invaded place but upon whether the person who claims the protection of the Amendment has a legitimate expectation of privacy in the invaded place.

Lee went onto say that when a person has borrowed an automobile from another, with the other’s consent, the borrower becomes a lawful possessor of the vehicle and has standing to challenge its search.

We have no direct evidence in the trial record about whether Brown was or was not lawfully in possession of the truck so we cannot say Brown lacked standing.

B. Search of exterior of car before obtaining search warrant

In Cardwell v. Lewis, 417 U.S. 583 (1974), the U.S. Supreme Court stated that where probable cause exists, a warrantless examination of the exterior of a car is not unreasonable under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. In Cardwell, the Supreme Court found that no significant expectation of privacy was infringed by a search limited to an examination of the vehicle’s tire and the taking of paint scrapings from the exterior of the vehicle.

C. Seizing car and moving it without a search warrant

In Cardwell, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the seizure of a vehicle followed by a search of the exterior was permissible because the police had probable cause for the search. The Supreme Court stated that the fact that police impounded the car prior to the examination, which they could have made on the spot, does not create a constitutional barrier to the use of the evidence obtained thereby.

They highlighted the special status that automobiles occupy under the Fourth Amendment, stating: the circumstances that furnish probable cause to search a particular auto for particular articles are most often unforeseeable; moreover, the opportunity to search is fleeting since a car is readily movable.

In Edlin v. State, 523 So. 2d 42 (Miss. 1988), an officer investigating the death of a woman killed when her car was run off the road noticed that the front bumper of Edlin’s car was scuffed and scraped and the car’s rear quarter panel had greenish-blue paint on it. Edlin’s vehicle was impounded by the police, and the next day, a search warrant was issued for the vehicle. MSC found that the police had probable cause to impound the vehicle pending the issuance of a warrant.

The vehicle already had been moved once, and there was a danger that the vehicle could be moved or tampered with if left in place. Because there was no warrantless search of the car’s interior, no important privacy interest was implicated. And the impoundment for a single day did not impermissibly interfere with Edlin’s possessory interest in the vehicle.

Based upon this precedent, if probable cause existed to conduct the presumptive blood test at the scene, the officers did not violate Brown’s Fourth Amendment rights when they impounded his truck for that purpose.

D. Probable cause to impound the truck

In Carroll v. U.S., 267 U.S. 132 (1925), the U.S. Supreme Court stated that if the search and seizure without a warrant are made upon probable cause, that is, upon a belief, reasonably arising out of circumstances known to the seizing officer, that an automobile or other vehicle contains that which by law is subject to seizure and destruction, the search and seizure are valid.

In this case, police officers were called to investigate the death of a woman, Young, whose body was found near a dumpster at the Vicksburg Hotel. Young, who weighed over three hundred pounds, had been beaten to death, but no large pools of blood were found near her body. Also, blood smears were found near her body in the parking lot.

All of this information led officers to conclude that a vehicle had more than likely been used to transport the body from where Young was killed to the dumpster. Less than eight hours after the discovery of Young’s body, Thomas was asked to check on a suspicious vehicle parked two blocks away from the Vicksburg Hotel. Upon closer inspection of the truck, Thomas observed a substance that appeared to be blood smeared on the tailgate, in the bed, and on the front seat.

Brown arrived on the scene, and he also believed the substance was blood. Thomas contacted his superior, Sergeant Woodall, who believed that, based on his 24 years of experience as a police officer, the substance on and in the truck was blood. Thus, the police were confronted with a bloody body that they thought had been moved using a vehicle and, nearby, a suspiciously parked truck with what appeared to be blood on its tailgate, in its bed, and on the front seat.

We find these facts were sufficient to justify a person of average caution in the belief that a crime had been committed and that this particular vehicle had been used in its commission.

Thoughts

In Jones, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the definition of 4th amendment searches. Government officials who physically intrude on private property to obtain information are now conducting 4th amendment searches. Before Jones, a 4th amendment search was limited to whether someone had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Thus, I would be very leery of searching an exterior car (paint scrapings, blood from tailgate) without a search warrant or an exception to the 4th amendment. However, keep in mind, you still have the automobile exception, exigent circumstances, or a search warrant option. In this case, the question would be whether the officers had enough probable cause without conducting the presumptive test on the truck’s tailgate first. If yes, the officers could either get a search warrant or search the car under the automobile exception.

 

https://courts.ms.gov/images/Opinions/CO53048.pdf