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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > February 2013 > State v. Price, Sixth District Court of Appeals (Erie, Fulton, Huron, Lucas, Ottawa, Sandusky, Willi

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State v. Price, Sixth District Court of Appeals (Erie, Fulton, Huron, Lucas, Ottawa, Sandusky, Williams, and Wood), Jan. 18, 2013

Questions: (1) May a peace officer search a car incident to arrest even though the recent occupants of the car are handcuffed and sitting in the back of the officer’s vehicle? (2) May the officer search the trunk of the car without a warrant even though the officer could secure the car and go get a warrant?
Quick Answers: (1) Yes, but only if the officer has reason to believe that the car contains evidence relevant to the arrested occupants’ crimes. (2) Yes, if the officer has probable cause to believe that the trunk contains evidence of a crime, the automobile exception permits a warrantless search.

Facts: A police officer stopped a vehicle for speeding. The driver didn’t have his license, but gave the officer his social security number and date of birth. The officer believed the driver had an outstanding warrant, so he asked him to get out of the car. The officer handcuffed and patted down the driver, finding $1,175 in cash. He also noticed that the driver and the vehicle smelled like burned marijuana, and the driver’s breath smelled of alcohol. The officer had the driver perform field sobriety tests and arrested him for OVI, placing him in the back of the patrol car. The officer asked the passenger, Lawrence Price, if he had permission to drive the car, and Price answered that he did. However, the officer learned that the car wasn’t registered to either the driver or Price, so he asked Price to step out of the vehicle.
The officer quickly patted down Price and found no weapons. Price was acting very nervous and fidgety, though, so the officer asked Price if he had anything illegal on him. Price replied, “Well, I’ll empty out my pockets.” He began removing items from his pants pockets, including a cellophane plastic wrapper. The officer knew that cellophane wrappers were a common way to carry drugs, so he asked Price what it was. Price told him, “That’s nothing, that’s a piece that I didn’t smoke earlier” and reached for the wrapper. The officer stopped Price and arrested him for suspicion of having drugs. The officer then searched the vehicle and found a small bag of marijuana. He also searched the trunk, which had a strong odor of raw marijuana. The officer found digital scales and a black bag. He felt the outside of the bag and believed some type of vegetative matter was inside. The officer called to have the vehicle impounded and again searched the passenger compartment. Price moved to suppress the evidence from the officer’s search.
Why this case is important: The court held that the officer’s search of the passenger compartment and trunk was constitutional. For a search incident to a lawful arrest, law enforcement may search the passenger compartment of a suspect’s vehicle when it is reasonable to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of the arresting offense. Here, the officer smelled burned marijuana, the driver had a large amount of money in his pocket, and Price insinuated that the cellophane from his pocket involved drugs. These facts gave the officer probable cause to search the vehicle incident to Price’s arrest.
The search of the trunk was justified under the automobile exception. If an officer has formed probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed, a vehicle may be searched without a warrant because (1) a vehicle is mobile, which creates a potential exigency that makes it difficult to obtain a search warrant, and (2) a there is a lessened expectation of privacy of a vehicle because it is frequently exposed to the public. In this case, when searching the passenger compartment of the car, the officer found a small amount of marijuana and noticed a strong smell of marijuana coming from an empty bag inside the car. This evidence gave the officer probable cause to search the trunk. There was no need to get a warrant even though it was possible for the officer to secure the car and obtain a warrant because the automobile exception doesn’t have an exigency requirement that must be met.
Keep in mind: The evidence you discover from exercising one warrant exception may provide you with the probable cause to exercise another exception.

Visit the Sixth District Court of Appeals website to view the entire opinion.