On January 5th, 2016, the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case of United States v. Daniel, providing an excellent review concerning police officers use of probable cause and the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. This case is particularly important in clarifying the legal requirements of officers searching a motor vehicle at a stop location.
When the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Arizona v. Gant, they altered Supreme Court case-law stretching back nearly 100 years. In essence, the decision in Gant prohibited officers from routinely searching the “lunge able” areas of a motor vehicle after a lawful arrest. Previously the Supreme Court had ruled in New York v. Belton, and Chimel v. California, this type of search incident to arrest was acceptable as long as it was limited to areas an occupant could have reasonably had access to a weapon or destructible evidence prior to arrest.
The case of United States v. Daniel (2016) may provide greater insight and clarity into when it is still permissible for an officer to make a warrantless search of an automobile.
EDITOR’S NOTE: BlueSheepDog provides legal case-law reviews as part of our commitment to educate officers on important Court decisions that direct officers actions in the field. Our hope is officers can educate themselves to be able to perform their duties to the highest levels of professionalism. However, we are not attorneys at law, and the information provided here should not be considered legal advice or instruction in any manner. We recommend our readers to review the material taken directly from a Federal Appeals Court decision, and then consult with their local prosecutors and department legal advisors before taking action on the streets.
Although the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals only has jurisdiction over the States within its jurisdiction, the decisions found in one Federal Appeals Circuit are often highly weighed in determining similar cases in other Federal Appeals Circuits. As such, the decision in this case is valid information for all officers.
United States v. Daniel (2016)
During the evening of February 14, 2013, Officers Britten and Gaddis of the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department observed a black, Ford Explorer parked in an area identified as a “high narcotics area.” Inside of the Ford Explorer, the officers observed a black male sitting in the back of the vehicle. Upon further observation the officers saw this male engage in what appeared to be a hand-to-hand drug transaction with a man standing outside of the vehicle.
Officer Britten was an experienced officer, and testified that the two men were clearly “handing stuff back and forth” in a manner that suggested a drug sale. The officers did not stop the men immediately, but drove around the corner to run a computer check on the vehicle’s license plate. The check revealed the vehicle was registered to an address associated with Brian Daniel, a man for whom there were two outstanding arrest warrants. The physical description of Daniel matched the man sitting inside the Ford Explorer.
The officers returned and approached Daniel as he was walking away from the vehicle. After Daniel provided officers his name and date of birth, Officer Britten returned to the patrol car to confirm that this information matched the warrants. From inside the patrol car, Britten saw Daniel walk a few steps away from Officer Gaddis and discard a plastic baggie. At that time the officers placed Daniel in handcuffs and retrieved the baggie, which appeared to contain illegal drugs. Later field testing confirmed the baggie did in fact contain controlled substances.
After Daniel was placed into handcuffs, Officer Gaddis alerted Officer Britten to an odor coming from Daniel’s vehicle. Britten recognized the odor as the smell of “fresh marijuana, unburnt marijuana.” Based on the smell, the drugs discarded in the baggie, and the observation of a hand-to-hand transaction, the officers searched Daniel’s vehicle.
Before searching the vehicle, the officers asked Daniel whether he had a weapon in the vehicle; Daniel said he did not. During the search a loaded Sig Sauer .40 caliber pistol was located stuffed between the driver’s seat and center console. In addition, a backpack containing approximately 450 grams of marijuana (nearly one pound) and drug-trafficking paraphernalia. During a review of the police car’s audio/video recording equipment, one of the officers was heard saying the marijuana was what they had smelled earlier.
Daniel was ultimately indicted in U.S. District Court for violations of Federal law associated with this incident. He filed a motion to suppress the firearm and drugs, alleging the warrantless search of his vehicle violated his 4th Amendment rights. The District Court denied the motion and Daniel pleaded guilty with the right to appeal. Daniel then filed a timely appeal with the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Appeal to the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals
The issue on appeal was whether the warrantless search of Daniel’s vehicle violated the 4th Amendment. The Eighth Circuit, in noting the law regarding this issue, stated:
“The Fourth Amendment forbids unreasonable searches and seizures. It is well settled that a warrantless search of an automobile is not unreasonable if law enforcement officers have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity. United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 823-24 (1982). Probable cause exists when the facts available to an officer would warrant a person of reasonable caution to believe that contraband or other evidence of a crime is present. Florida v. Harris, 133 S. Ct. 1050, 1055 (2013).”
The Court then examined facts relevant to the issue of whether the police had probable cause to believe Daniels’ vehicle contained evidence of a crime.
- The Court noted that the police officers observed Daniels behave in a manner consistent with a hand-to-hand drug transaction while he was inside his vehicle.
- The police officers observed Daniels discard a baggie of illegal drugs while he was outside of his vehicle.
- The police testified they smelled the odor of fresh marijuana emanating from the vehicle prior to their search.
The Court then stated:
“These facts gave the officers ample reason to believe that the vehicle contained marijuana or other evidence of drug-related activity. See United States v. Brown, 634 F.3d 435, 438 (8th Cir. 2011); United States v. Davis, 569 F.3d 813, 817-18 (8th Cir. 2009); United States v. Neumann, 183 F.3d 753, 756 (8th Cir. 1999).”
The KCPD officers did an outstanding job of establishing the grounds for their legal actions. Officers are encouraged to note and document as many observations, suspicions, and their experience with similar circumstances into their official police report. These details laid a strong foundation making it very easy for both Federal Courts to rule the search of the vehicle, based upon probable cause, was reasonable and acceptable under 4th Amendment exceptions to the search warrant requirement.
On appeal, Daniel argued the officers did not really smell the marijuana prior to searching his vehicle. However, the Court of Appeals stated, unless clearly contradicted by evidence, they could not overturn the finder of fact (the U.S. District Court) on that issue. Further, they noted there was evidence to support the officer’s testimony, particularly; one officer was heard on the in-car video, after finding the marijuana in the vehicle, saying words to the effect of, “this is what we smelled earlier.”
Finally, Daniel argued, along the same line above, that the sole purpose of the officer’s search of his vehicle was to investigate whether he had a weapon. The Court stated:
“Under the Fourth Amendment, the subjective motives of the police are not controlling. The dispositive question is whether the police had probable cause to believe that the vehicle contained evidence of criminal activity.”
In other words, the Fourth Amendment is satisfied by “objective reasonableness” rather than the subjective (personal) beliefs or motives of the officers. Since, viewed objectively, probable cause to believe the vehicle contained contraband was present in this case, the search was reasonable under the 4th Amendment.
Therefore, the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress, and Daniel was convicted of crimes associated with his unlawful possession of controlled substances and a firearm.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Arizona v. Gant that police officers could no longer arbitrarily search the interior of a motor vehicle incident to arrest unless two conditions were met:
- The officer had probable cause to believe there was evidence associated to the crime the occupant was arrested for
- The occupant was not restrained and could have access into the vehicle to retrieve a weapon or destroy evidence.
The decision in Gant was meant to balance the restrictions of the 4th Amendment, with the officer’s right to protect themselves from weapons or to secure evidence that could be easily destroyed. However, as we have mentioned before, we believe the Supreme Court weighed heavily on the officer’s testimony of the search in making its determination in Gant. In that testimony, the officer basically stated he always searched a car incident to arrest because the Courts said he could.
Whenever an officer, or attorney, tries to justify their actions with “the court said I could”, instead of providing objectively reasonable articulation as to why their actions were lawful, you can expect the Court to level the hammer. The Supreme Court did just that in Gant.
However, the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the issue of searching a motor vehicle based upon probable cause (even though the occupant had just been arrested as well). In the Daniel case the Court recognized officers can still establish probable cause to search a motor vehicle without obtaining a search warrant. The officers clearly linked their observations to portray a reasonable belief that Daniel’s vehicle contained controlled substances. Therefore the search based upon probable cause was reasonable and allowable under 4th Amendment scrutiny.
Though not specifically addressed in this case, the he Courts still tend to be favorable of motor vehicle searches without a warrant when the officers develop probable cause of criminal activity in the vehicle. For instance, if an officer made a lawful stop of a motor vehicle for a traffic violation, and upon talking to the occupants smells the odor of marijuana emanating from inside the vehicle, the Courts seem to still recognize probable cause has been established to search the vehicle without a search warrant.
This is slightly different from U.S. v. Daniel, where the officers suspected illegal drug activity from the beginning. In the example from above the officer’s original reason for contact was a traffic violation, but during that lawful activity the officer developed probable cause of another criminal act, therefore providing lawful grounds to search the vehicle.
As always, State and local laws (and department policies) will dictate how individual officers proceed. However, the Federal Courts seem to still recognize and allow these types of motor vehicle searches within the 4th Amendment restrictions.