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Circuit says that automobile exception is so expansive that it “essentially has obviated” the need for a search warrant as long as there is probable cause to believe that the car contains evidence of a crime.

United States v. Donahue, 13-4767, 2014 WL 4115949 (August 22, 2014)

After sentencing, defendant missed his turn in date in New Jersey.  He was found in New Mexico in his son’s Ford Mustang.  Over the course of five days, agents from two different agencies searched the car multiple times and eventually found a firearm magazine clip under the driver’s seat and a gun in a bag that was in the car – all without getting a warrant.  District court suppressed the evidence saying that there was no probable cause to search the car.  The Circuit reversed.
            Although there were numerous arguments the government could have raised, it only argued on appeal that probable cause existed and therefore no warrant was necessary.  Circuit agreed, stating that a search is justified whenever there is PC that evidence of a crime, not just contraband, is in the car – even if that evidence may otherwise seem innocuous.  Also, the continuing or completed nature of a crime is irrelevant to the PC analysis in this case.  It didn’t matter that defendant had already failed to report to prison and that he had already been arrested – there was still PC that evidence of his deliberate failure to report (such as false IDs) would be in the car.  Finally, it didn’t matter that the first agent who searched the car wouldn’t have done so of his own accord and only performed the search upon the request of another agent.  Probable cause is an objective inquiry and does not rise and fall on the subjective belief of the searching officer.
            More important than its probable cause conclusion were two statements by the Circuit:
First, if the search of the car is justified by probable cause, then law enforcement can search every part of the car including any contents that may conceal the object of the search (?!?!).  Because there was probable cause to search this car, the agents were allowed to go into any bag or suitcase inside the car. 
Second, probable cause does not dissipate after the car is immobilized because there is no exigency component to the automobile exception (again--?!?!).  Therefore, it did not matter that the government had the car for several days and could have easily gotten a warrant.  On top of that, the government was allowed to search the car as many times as it wanted. 
            Bottom line, as long as law enforcement had PC to search the car when they seized it, they could search everything inside it, for as long as they wanted to, as many times as they wanted to.
            There are some limitations (barely).  (1)  The Circuit deliberately stated that this case did not concern a situation in which the car is NOT in continuous control of law enforcement.  (2) There must be probable cause that contraband and/or affirmative evidence of a crime will be found.  The Circuit rejected the government’s argument that a search is permissible if there is PC that a search would reveal evidence refuting a potential affirmative defense.  (3)  Even though prison inmates and escaped prisoners generally have no legitimate expectations of privacy, the Circuit deliberately did not address whether a fugitive – one who failed to report to prison -- has a legitimate expectation of privacy.    


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