Law Enforcement Bulletin

Sign up for newsletters and other news
Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > May 2015 > Search and Seizure (Consent Search, Passenger’s Belongings): State v. Chojnowski

Law Enforcement Bulletin RSS feeds

Search and Seizure (Consent Search, Passenger’s Belongings): State v. Chojnowski

Question: If a vehicle owner consents to the search of his vehicle, can you search a container that belongs to a passenger?

Quick Answer:  No, a vehicle owner has no authority to consent to a search of a passenger’s belongings.  

State v. Chojnowski, 9th Appellate DistrictWayne County Municipal Court, April 13, 2015

Facts:  A deputy responded to a call regarding a suspicious vehicle in a business parking lot around 10:20 p.m. After determining that there was nothing illegal going on, the deputy asked the vehicle owner for permission to search the vehicle. The deputy obtained the owner’s consent to search the vehicle and had both the driver and the passenger, Taryn Chojnowski, step out of the vehicle. The deputy testified that he saw Chojnowski with a black bag on her lap and then saw her leave the bag in the vehicle when she was asked to step out of the vehicle. The bag was partially open and another completely sealed bag was inside. Inside the sealed bag the deputy found a pipe, needles, and other items used for drug abuse.
Importance: The scope of a search under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement differs from the scope of a consent search. When the owner consents to a search of his vehicle, the belongings of the passengers inside the vehicle cannot be searched unless the owner has mutual use or joint access to the property. In this case there was no evidence that the owner had common authority over the bag or that the vehicle owner’s consent extended to the passenger’s bag.  

Keep in Mind: This only applies to “consent searches” by the owner over belongings which clearly do not belong to them. Officers are allowed to search a passenger’s belongings in a vehicle when the automobile exception applies. Under the automobile exception, when an officer has probable cause to believe a vehicle contains contraband, the scope of the search extends to any part of the vehicle that could conceal the object of the search, which may include the passenger’s belongings.