Thursday, December 1, 2016

Ithaca DWI Lawyer: Can the Police Check Your Car Trunk for Drugs in New York?

Trunk Access from My Back Seat

In a recent court case of People v. Jones, 2016, Livingston County a person was stopped for speeding which led to search of his car and then of his trunk. Of course pot was found in the trunk of his car, and a suppression hearing was held to determine the constitutionality (legality) of the police search of the trunk.

Was the trooper within the law?
Is it ok for the police to check your car's trunk?
Does this violate your 4th amendment rights?
Can they do this with every car stop?

In New York Seizures and Searches Always Require Probable Cause

If a car is stopped (a seizure) for probable cause, which in New York is any traffic or equipment violation then generally speaking the driver, and the passenger compartment are fair game for a search. In most marijuana cases that start as car stops this is triggered by the smell of burnt marijuana. Because it is reasonable to believe that people smoke pot in the passenger compartment of a car so it likely you would find the pot close to where it is smoked, people don’t usually smoke weed in their car’s trunk?

The New York Automobile Exception and Looking in Your Car’s Trunk

In the case of People v. Jones, the trooper stated under oath that he remembered the “automobile exception” to the 4th amendment from his police training, and so felt his search of the ENTIRE car was legal.  This in his mind included the trunk of the car.

The automobile exception to the 4th amendment goes back over 90 years in Carroll v. United States (267 US 132 [1925]). Roughly speaking cars are mobile and fast so you don’t have the same protections under the 4th amendment (freedom from unreasonable search and seizure) in a car because you can move contraband and/or weapons quickly out of sight. Courts use a fancy word called EXIGENT circumstances as in critical and urgent.

New York Law, Car Stops, and Trunks

The Judge in Jones did an analysis of this case beyond the case law. He brought up a few key concepts with marijuana and cars.

1. The Courts are divided (undecided) on whether the smell of burnt marijuana gives the police probable cause to search car trunks. There is no hard and fast rule that they do, it is dependent upon the objective facts of that specific case and situation.

2. The passenger compartment of a car is most clearly searchable if the police smell burnt marijuana.

3. Probable cause for any warrantless search is limited in scope by the facts as well The court said you don’t search for a stolen lawnmower in a bedroom but a garage yes. The scope and the extent of any warrantless search requires probable cause which is also narrowed by the object to be found.  The court gave another example, in that you don’t look for undocumented aliens in a suitcase.

4. New York courts do NOT support the idea that the odor of burnt marijuana automatically entitles the police to search your car’s trunk.

5.  A trunk search would be upheld from a car stop IF there is particularized probable cause to believe that the trunk, as opposed to the passenger compartment, contains marijuana.

How and Why Particularized Probable Cause Can Lead to a Legal Trunk Search in New York

So the question is was there additional evidence that the trunk might contain marijuana? 
Did the drug dog alert specifically to the car’s trunk, and not the passenger compartment?  
Was there the smell of raw marijuana as opposed to burnt marijuana? 

Which all may indicate the transport of a large quantity of pot whereas the smell of burnt marijuana is consistent with personal use.

To Legally Justify the Trooper Search Trunk Access was a Crucial Fact 

Jones was decided in favor of a legal trunk search based upon trunk access from the passenger compartment. The court’s analysis in Jones focused on the fact that the trooper opened the trunk via a trunk release.

“it was clear that the trunk was, in fact, accessible from the interior of the vehicle, as it was actually accessed by Trooper Hoyt from the passenger compartment, by folding down the back seat. Thus, while it may have posed some difficulties, Defendant could have accessed the trunk from the interior of the vehicle as well to stow any remaining marijuana.”

So my friends don’t transport pot in your trunk thinking you are safe because of the 4th amendment, and don’t transport drugs, contraband, or weapons and be driving in a car that has access to the trunk from the inside.