Search incident to arrest not appropriate once subject is in police car (Gant has clarified rules on this)

Facts

A city police officer for the City of Crystal Springs, Officer LeFleur, observed two males in the vicinity of a pick-up truck improperly stopped in a lane of traffic in a public road. Upon stopping to investigate, he found Elwood White sitting on the driver’s side of the truck and his brother William White standing near the passenger side of the vehicle.

As LeFleur approached the truck, he observed William reach into the bed of the truck and retrieve an open container of alcohol which he tossed into the cab of the truck. Officer LeFleur then proceeded to arrest William for a violation of the city’s open container law, and handcuffed him.

Officer Funches, responding to the scene upon being dispatched to assist, proceeded to deal directly with Elwood White, who was still on the driver’s side of the vehicle. Funches required E. White to submit to a Terry type frisk to determine if Elwood possessed a weapon. No weapon was discovered, but he did find some bullets in his shirt pocket.

Funchess then elected to conduct a search of the interior of the vehicle and discovered a handgun, the handle of which was in plain view. Based on this discovery, he placed Elwood in handcuffs and returned to the truck to conduct a more thorough search. It was during this second search that he discovered, concealed under a jacket on the passenger side, a medicine bottle which he opened. Inside the bottle, he found what he believed to be crack cocaine. He then arrested Elwood for possession of a controlled substance.

Elwood White was convicted of possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute and sentenced to 30 years. MCOA found no probable cause to search the vehicle at the time the pill bottle was discovered and seized. Nevertheless, MCOA applied inevitable discovery. MSC reversed MCOA, finding no probable cause for the search and no inevitable discovery.

Analysis

Inevitable discovery arose from U.S. Supreme Court case Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431 (1984). In Nix, a young girl disappeared from a YMCA facility where she had been attending a sporting event with her family. Nix was seen leaving the facility with a large bundle wrapped in a blanket. One witness reported having seen two small legs protruding from the bundle.

Nix’s car was found some distance away and some of the child’s clothing found therein. Some more clothing was found at a nearby roadside stop and ultimately, a search for the body involving more than two hundred searchers was begun in the area. Nix was improperly coerced into taking a police officer to the body. The U.S. Supreme Court found that even though the police acted improperly in coercing Nix to take them to the body, the body was discovered in a public area where it would inevitably have been found by the search parties.

In our case, MCOA fails to explain how the drugs inside a pill bottle inside the passenger compartment of a vehicle underneath a jacket would have been legally inevitably discovered, or discovered in a “constitutionally permissible means” in this case. They were not in plain view nor were they in a place of public access. There was no consent to search the vehicle, nor was a warrant obtained.

Once the Whites had been handcuffed and secured, the search incident to arrest of either party ended. It was only after both men had been handcuffed and secured that the officer went back to the vehicle without probable cause, without consent, and without a warrant and searched the vehicle, finding the drugs inside a closed bottle which in turn was underneath a jacket.

This case is controlled by Ferrell v. State, 649 So. 2d 831 (Miss. 1995). In that case, Ferrell was stopped for a speeding violation. It was thereupon discovered that Ferrell’s license had been suspended and he was arrested and placed in the patrol car. The officer then claimed that Ferrell asked him to retrieve the keys. The officer found the keys on the passenger seat. Next to the keys he observed a matchbox. He found nothing but matches in the matchbox, but underneath found an unidentified yellow pill. Suspicions aroused, he continued to look about the vehicle discovering yet another matchbox between the two front seats. Inside that matchbox, he found crack cocaine.

In Ferrell, we said: In the case of a search incident to arrest, the exception to the warrant requirement is founded upon the reasonable concern that the arrestee might have a weapon on his person or within reach, and that he may attempt to destroy evidence which is within his grasp. The search of Ferrell’s car cannot be classified as incident to arrest.

At the time Officer Byrd searched the car, Ferrell had already been frisked, handcuffed, and placed in the back seat of Officer Byrd’s patrol car. Consequently, he could have had no reasonable fear that Ferrell might have a weapon. Furthermore, based upon the defendant’s behavior and the prior pat-down there was no reason to think that Ferrell might be in a position to destroy incriminating evidence from the crime which led to his arrest, i.e., a suspended driver’s license.

We find, therefore, that the seizure of the contraband from the car Ferrell was driving does not fit the plain view exception. At the time Byrd entered the car, no incriminating evidence was visible. Nevertheless, he proceeded to lift the matchbox in search of contraband. Moreover, Byrd was not content after he discovered that the first matchbox contained matches, but continued the search and opened the second matchbox. Given their utility and wide availability, matches are common objects in the everyday world. The mere presence of a matchbox on the front seat of a car ordinarily cannot be termed an incriminating object in plain view.

Even assuming that Elwood had been legally arrested, the improper search in this case is indistinguishable from the Ferrell case and the “inevitable discovery” doctrine simply has no application as there was no valid underlying reason for the officers to return to the truck after the Whites had been secured and conduct the search which resulted in the discovery of the drugs inside the medicine bottle.

Thoughts

Gant, which came out in 2009, clarified that police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only if it is reasonable to believe that the arrestee might access the vehicle at the time of the search or that the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest.

 

https://courts.ms.gov/images/Opinions/Conv6921.pdf