As a Boston Criminal defense attorney, one of the most important factors I consider when deciding a defense for a criminal charge is whether the obtained evidence was found during a warrantless search. Evidence obtained during an unwarranted search is not usually admissible in a criminal trial. However, automobiles are a major exception to the search and seizure clause of the Fourth Amendment, so it is important to understand the Constitutional defense available in car searches.
Due to the automobile exception to the search and seizure clause, it is common for police officers to purposely find a justification to use as a pretext for searching an automobile without a warrant. The case of United States v. Scott decided by the 9th Circuit brought up issues regarding the automobile exception to the warrant requirement under the search and seizure clause of the Fourth Amendment. Although this is an out of state case, it raises important issues that could come into play in a Massachusetts firearm or drug case.
After discovering evidence of an illegal drug operation in a Nevada home, police arrived at the home and arrested the suspect at the scene with charges of controlled substance and firearm possession. Upon entering the home, officers claimed that not only could they smell marijuana on the premises, but they also saw the defendant stuff multiple stacks of cash into plastic bags in an effort to conceal them.
Prior to the search, the suspect had observed the defendant go back and forth to his car, loading various personal items With these observations in mind, police conducted a warrantless search of the vehicle where they found a handgun and 250 grams of cocaine. The defendant moved to suppress the retrieved evidence on the basis that the search was unwarranted and did not fall within the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.
As held in Carroll v. United States 267 U.S. 132 (1925), the warrantless search of a vehicle with probable cause is not unlawful due to the mobile nature of a vehicle- delaying the search to obtain a search warrant would allow for the vehicle to be quickly moved out of the vicinity. Furthermore, the automobile exception holds that a police officer must have a warrant to search an automobile, unless there is probable cause to believe that the automobile contains either contraband or evidence of a crime.
In this case, the court ruled that the police did in fact have probable cause to search the car due to their observations and the evidence they had already retrieved. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court.
As a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, it is important to ensure that a defendant's Fourth Amendment rights were not violated when their property was searched. It is a commonly used defense, as it is unfortunately a common occurrence in police conduct. If the court agrees that the search was unlawful under the Fourth Amendment search and seizure clause, then the entire case could be dismissed as any evidence obtained in the unlawful search would now be inadmissible. A mere suspicion of criminal activity is not enough to use as probable cause for the automobile exception of the search warrant requirement. In this case, the defense will have challenged the police observations during cross examination to reduce police credibility, and thus the credibility of the "probable cause" the police used to search the car.