Can a Bus Driver Give Consent to Search the Passenger Compartment?

By February 1, 2018Search & Seizure

The Case of the Not Too “Wise” Bus Passenger

United States v. Wise, 877 F.3d 209 (5th Cir. TX 2017)

Bus Driver Consent Search Wise 2017FACTS: In this case, police officers were conducting bus interdictions at a Greyhound bus stop. After a certain bus stopped, the driver got off the bus and the officers approached him requesting consent to search the passenger cabin of the bus. The bus driver consented to a search and two experienced narcotics officers in plain clothes boarded the bus. The officers did not block the exit or otherwise obstruct any of the passengers from departing the bus. One officer walked to the back of the bus while the other officer remained at the front.

The officer at the front of the bus noticed a man who was pretending to be asleep. The officer found this suspicious, because in his experience, criminals on buses often pretended to be asleep to avoid police contact. The officer walked past the “sleeping” man and turned around. The sleeping man (named Morris Wise) then turned to look back at officer, revealing that he was not asleep after all. The officer then approached Wise (now awake) and asked to see his bus ticket. Wise gave the officer a bus ticket, bearing the name “James Smith.” The officer had a hunch that James Smith was a fake name. The officer then asked Wise if he had any luggage with him on the bus. Wise said yes and motioned to the luggage rack directly above his head.

Wise then gave the officers consent to search the duffle bag in the overhead compartment. The officers did not find any contraband in the duffle bag. The officers also noticed a backpack near Wise and asked if the backpack belonged to him. Wise denied ownership of the backpack. The officers then asked the other passengers about the backpack and no one claimed it, so the officers removed the backpack at the bus driver’s request.

Outside the bus, a trained police canine alerted to the backpack. The officers then cut a small lock off the backpack, searched it, and found seven brick-type packages that appeared to contain cocaine.

The officers then went back onto the bus and asked Wise if he would mind getting off the bus to speak to the officers. Wise complied with the officers’ request and got off the bus. The officers asked Wise if he had any weapons, which he denied that he had any weapons, and then they asked him to empty his pockets.

From his pockets, Wise gave the officers his ID card with bearing the name “Morris Wise” and a lanyard with several keys attached to it. Not surprisingly, one of the key opened the lock that the officers had to cut off of the backpack (that Wise said was not his). The officer then arrested Wise, and the government charged him with several drug-related offenses.

Motion to Suppress the Search as the Fruits on an Illegal “Checkpoint Stop”

Wise filed a motion to suppress the evidence as a violation of his 4th amendment right against unreasonable searched and seizures. The district court held that the officers’ conduct in searching the bus constituted an unconstitutional checkpoint stop. In addition, the district court held that the bus driver did not voluntarily consent to the officers’ search of the luggage compartment where the backpack was located. As a result, the district court suppressed all evidence the officers seized after the stop.

The government appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

First, the court held that the district court incorrectly characterized the officers’ bus interdiction as an unconstitutional checkpoint. The court noted that the Supreme Court’s cases involving checkpoints involve roadblocks or other types of conduct where the government initiates a stop to interact with motorists. In this case, the officers did not require the bus driver to stop at the station. Instead, the driver made the scheduled stop as required by his employer, Greyhound. In addition, the officers only approached the driver after he had disembarked from the bus, and the driver voluntarily agreed to speak with them. The court concluded that the interaction between the officers and the driver was better characterized as a “bus interdiction.”

Second, although Wise had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his luggage, the court held that as a passenger, Wise did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the luggage compartment of the commercial bus. As a result, the court concluded that Wise had no standing to challenge the officers’ search of that compartment, to which the bus driver consented.

Third, the court held that the officers did not seize Wise, within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, when they approached him, asked to see his identification, and requested his consent to search his luggage. Instead, the court concluded that Wise’s interaction with the officers was a consensual encounter because a reasonable person in Wise’s position would have felt free to decline the officers’ requests or otherwise terminate the encounter.

Finally, the court held that Wise voluntarily answered the officer’s questions, voluntarily emptied his pockets, and voluntarily gave the officer his identification and keys.

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