Thursday, March 08, 2007

Various Facts Allowed Cops to Reasonably Believe Suspect Had Authority to Consent to Search of Storage Shed, Even Though He Denied Renting It

United States v. Dilley, No. 05-30869 (5th Cir. Mar. 2, 2007) (Smith, Benavides, Prado)

Officers suspected Dilley of being involved in drugs. They got a tip from a CI that Dilley had a storage shed, so they set up surveillance on Dilley. The surveillance led to a car chase, which ended when Dilley drove into a field and got stuck in the mud. After handcuffing Dilley, the officers asked him if he rented a storage shed, which he denied. The officers then confronted him with a receipt from the rental facility that they found in his wallet. Dilley said, "I don't have a unit over there. You can search any of them over there. You are not going to find anything." Slip op. at 2. Officers proceeded to search one of the storage units, using keys found in Dilley's car, and found "a gun, ammunition, plastic bags, and a personalized license plate bearing Dilley's name." Id.

Dilley moved to suppress the evidence from the shed, arguing that his consent to search was invalid. The district court denied the motion, and Dilley was convicted of possession of meth with intent to distribute, conspiracy to PWID meth, and possession of a gun.

On appeal, "Dilley [did] not primarily argue that he did not consent or that his consent was not voluntary. Instead, his claim [went] to authority: When he denied ownership of the unit, the police could not have thought he had the authority to consent to a search." Slip op. at 3. The court disagreed:
If a reasonable officer could believe that Dilley had authority to consent to a search of the storage unit, the search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. At the time he consented, police had received a tip that he maintained storage unit number sixteen, they had observed him driving into the storage facility, and they had found a receipt and keys for the unit in his possession. With this evidence, a reasonable officer could believe that Dilley had authority to consent to a search, despite his bald
denial of ownership.

Slip op. at 4. The court acknowledged that a person does not lose his Fourth Amendment rights simply by refusing to answer incriminating questions and by denying a privacy interest in the place searched. But that's not what happened here, according to the court: "Dilley maintained the expectation of privacy in his storage unit even after denying his ownership, then he exercised his property rights by consenting to a search of the location." Id.

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