Law Enforcement Bulletin

Sign up for newsletters and other news
Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > January 2013 > U.S. v. Coleman, Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nor

Law Enforcement Bulletin RSS feeds

U.S. v. Coleman, Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota), Nov. 8, 2012

Question: Can a peace officer search every part of a motor home when the home’s owner tells the officer that drugs are located only in the front part of the home?
Quick answer: Yes, under the automobile exception. Officers also may conduct a limited “protective sweep.”

Facts: A state trooper watched a motor home vehicle swerve over the highway’s white fog line onto the shoulder two times. The trooper stopped the motor home and asked the driver, Thomas Coleman, to sit in the patrol car while the trooper issued a warning citation and checked Coleman’s criminal history. Coleman denied having any criminal record, but the trooper learned from dispatch that Coleman had an extensive criminal history, including drug, gun, and robbery offenses. The trooper again asked Coleman about his prior record, but he denied having one. The trooper then asked him about any drug use, and Coleman admitted to keeping medicinal marijuana in the front of his motor home. The trooper placed Coleman in the back of the patrol car and performed a protective sweep of the entire motor home. During the sweep, the trooper noticed a large weapons-type bag. He opened the bag to find a high-point rifle and ammunition. The trooper confirmed with dispatch that Coleman was a convicted felon, and then he found Coleman’s marijuana in the front of the motor home. Coleman was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, and he moved to suppress the evidence found from the stop and search.
Why this case is important: The court denied Coleman’s motion to suppress under the automobile exception. In California v. Carney, the U.S. Supreme Court held that because a motor home is mobile, like any other vehicle, it has a lessened expectation of privacy and is subject to the automobile exception. So when Coleman admitted to having marijuana in his motor home, the trooper had probable cause to search every part of the home where marijuana may have been kept, including the bag found underneath the motor home’s bed. The trooper’s search of the bag also was justified because, even without probable cause, officers may conduct a protective sweep of an area to ensure officer safety, which includes looking under a bed. The trooper noticed the bag in plain view and recognized it as a gun case. So the trooper had probable cause to look inside the bag because he believed contraband may be found inside, and he also believed Coleman was a convicted felon.
Keep in mind: Motor homes, campers, and other mobilized living quarters are unique because they allow law enforcement to justify a warrantless search in a few different ways. First, you may search a motor home under the automobile exception. Even though these homes are basically like a house, they are still considered a vehicle under the Fourth Amendment because they are commonly found on roads and highways. One thing to remember, though: If you are looking for something like a rifle or shotgun, for example, you don’t have the right to search through a purse or any small containers you find inside the motor home.
Second, because officers aren’t able to visibly see inside the passenger compartment of a motor home, they also may perform a protective sweep of the home for officer safety. And during that search, any contraband in plain view is fair game.
 Visit the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals website to view the entire opinion.