Limiting Consent – Your 4th Amendment Right

Is it a violation of one’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable warrantless search and seizure if an officer finds drugs in a vehicle through a nonconsensual search?  The United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit said YES in United States v. Cotton.

U.S. v. Cotton– In February 2011, Appellant was driving his rental car when he was pulled over by a police officer who had received a tip that Appellant may be carrying drugs. The officer conducted a traffic stop and asked Appellant twice for consent to search his car. Appellant replied both times that the officer could search only his luggage. After searching through Appellant’s luggage, the officer examined the driver side rear door, which had loose screws and tool marks. The officer pried back the door panel and discovered crack cocaine inside. The officer arrested Appellant who then made incriminating statements to the officer.

The 5th Circuit held that the officer impermissibly extended his search beyond the scope of the Appellant’s consent and therefore violated the Appellant’s Fourth Amendment right. According to the 5th Circuit, “when conducting a warrantless search of a vehicle based on consent, officers have no more authority to search than it appears was given by consent.” Appellant’s consent allowed the officer to only search luggage in areas of the car where luggage might be found. The officer exceeded the bounds of his limited consent when, instead of only searching the luggage, he searched the entire vehicle for drugs.

The 5th Circuit compared Cotton to U.S. v. Solis, which involved an officer who unexpectedly came across heroin during a consensual search of a defendant’s bedroom. When the officer moved a cooler to use as a step, heroin was revealed. The defendant sought to suppress the evidence but the 5th Circuit held that because the cooler was moved only to effectuate the search for the gun, for which consent had been voluntarily given, the officer did not exceed the scope of the consent. Therefore, the heroin was admissible evidence.

However, in Cotton, after searching Appellant’s luggage, the officer expanded his search by examining other parts of the car. The 5th Circuit held that because the officer did not have authority to search discrete locations where luggage would not likely be found, evidence of the crack cocaine must be suppressed as the officer violated Appellant’s Fourth Amendment right.

If your 4th Amendment rights have been violated and you are facing criminal prosecution, give us a call for a free consultation.  Our attorneys will aggressively defend your rights against government intrusion.

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