Automobile Warrantless Searches and the Exclusionary Rules

On Behalf of | Nov 20, 2013 | Firm News |

Sometimes crazy things happen on the way to surrendering to federal prison. A recent case discusses issues a convicted federal felon confronted when he chose to not surrender but flee to the New Mexico border. When U.S. Marshals found him sitting in his car in the parking lot of a border motel, strange search and seizure constitutional violations of his hotel room and car began to take place. I am sure many of these search techniques are utilized daily.The case is U.S. v. Donahue, out of the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The searches of his hotel room and car were incident to his arrest for failing to report to federal prison as ordered. However, at the suppression hearing, it was discovered that upon Donahue’s detention near his car, U.S. Marshal searches of Donahue’s car and hotel room were pursuant to instruction for a Scranton, Pa U.S. Marshal, not investigative in nature.Importantly, the Court determined that the U.S. Marshal’s office in Pennsylvaniauthorized a search of Mr. Donahue’s car. An inventory search of the car was performed one day later by the New Mexico FBI office. It is at that time a gun was found. Donahue moved to suppress the search of his vehicle aiming to not be convicted of being a federal felon in possession of a firearm.Donahue argued 1) he had standing to move to suppress the illegal car search as he was a permissive user of the car, 2) the searches were illegal because they were not pursuant to either a warrant or probable cause of criminal activity, 3) there were no exigent circumstances present allowing for the warrantless search of his car, and 4) the inevitable discovery doctrine regarding inventory searches was equally inapplicable.The government argued that Mr. Donahue had stolen the car and therefore did not possess standing to seek to suppress the evidence. Thereafter, the government argued that the search was pursuant to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity (a federal felon not reporting for prison), and even if there was no probable cause, FBI search procedures of vehicles impounded pursuant to criminal investigations warranted application of the inevitable discovery doctrine.As the car was being inventoried, seats were moved and the gun was found underneath. My experience with these cases and the law addressing propriety of U.S. Marshall, FBI, and state police officers searching and inventory tactics is expansive. This case presents clear overreaching by government investigative measures and on the scene search techniques.  The governmental attorneys failed in their attempt to masquerade the search as a legal on the scene warrantless search or policy driven inventory search.First the court addressed Donahue’s standing to contest the car search. The Court found that the vehicle was not stolen. The government cited a psychiatrist report stating Mr. Donahue stole the vehicle. The defendant presented vehicle owner testimony whom provided authority to operate the vehicle. As such, Mr. Donahue had standing to contest the search of his vehicle.Having standing to object to the search, Mr. Donahue then contested the government’s search of his vehicle without a warrant. The Fourth Amendment guarantees that: “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” U.S. Const. amend IV. “What is reasonable depends upon all of the circumstances surrounding the search or seizure and the nature of the search or seizure itself. The automobile exception to the warrant requirement requires the search occur on a readily mobile car for which exigent circumstances present itself.The government argued that because Mr. Donahue was a convicted felon who did not surrendered to prison, the car was the instrumentality of that crime and thus the warrantless vehicle search was proper . The same argument applied to the hotel room. The court expressly disagreed, citing the elements of the offense of failing to report to prison as a formal court order and failing to be present at the federal prison on the date and time identified. There is no requirement in the statute that the defendant be in a house, hotel room, or car. As such, searching Mr. Donahue’s hotel room or car did not present a fair probability that evidence of the crime (failure report to prison) would be discovered. Hence, the car and hotel room searches without a warrant were illegal.Having determined that the search of the car illegal, the government argued that the government was still permitted inventory the contents of the car for the purposes of further investigative reasons. The court disagreed with this position as well. Because the car was searched based upon U.S. Marshal instruction and not FBI investigative procedures, the government’s argument was contrary to the evidence.  As such, there was no basis to inventory the items in the vehicle or apply the inevitable discovery doctrine. All evidence secured from the initial illegal search was therefore precluded and determined to be inadmissible.  The gun was suppressed and any additional criminal charges of a felon possessing a firearm while failing to report to prison would have to be dismissed.Please call me to discuss your case.