Friday, August 09, 2013

Consent Was Limited to Luggage; Prolonged and More Extensive Search Violated Fourth Amendment

United States v. Cotton, No. 12-40563 (July 2, 2013) (Wiener, Dennis, Owen)

According to the audio recording of the traffic stop, the officer asked if Cotton if he could search his car. Cotton’s response is unintelligible. The officer then asked, "Is it okay if I search it?" Cotton responded, "Search my luggage." "Okay. Is it okay if I search everything in the car?" Cotton responded, "My luggage, yeah." The officer proceeded to search the trunk and the passenger cabin for forty minutes before prying back the driver’s-side rear door after noticing loose screws and tool markings on the door’s panel. Cotton made incriminating statements after being arrested for the drugs in the door panel.

The district court denied Cotton’s motion to suppress the drugs and his statements, but the panel vacated his conviction and reversed. The panel found that Cotton limited his consent to the luggage and that the video showed that the officer had already located and searched the luggage before expanding the search and later examining the driver’s-side rear door. By that point, the officer did not have authority to keep searching, and Cotton’s failure to object to the extended search was irrelevant since the officer could not have reasonably interpreted Cotton’s consent to apply to the whole vehicle. The panel found that both the drugs and the statements must be suppressed.

If only all suppression cases actually had audio and video of the search instead of playing the officer-said, defendant-said game that we so often lose.

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