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Court of Appeals Examines the Automobile Exception in State v. Armstrong

Yesterday, the North Carolina Court of Appeals issued an opinion in the case, State v. Armstrong. Armstrong involved the search of the defendant’s automobile, and the court held that, although it did not meet the exceptions to the warrant requirement set out in Arizona v. Gant, the search was allowed under the “automobile exception.”

In Armstrong, two officers observed the defendant’s car make a three-point turn in the middle of an intersection, hit a parked car, and then travel on the left side of the road. The officers turned on their lights to stop the defendant’s car. Before the defendant pulled over, the officers saw a beer bottle thrown from the defendant’s window. The officers instructed the defendant and the passenger to exit the vehicle, and they complied. The officers noticed a smell of alcohol and marijuana coming from the defendant’s empty car and also saw a half-full beer bottle in the center console. One officer also noticed a smell of alcohol on the defendant’s breath and saw that the defendant had “red, glassy bloodshot eyes.”

The defendant was arrested for hit and run and driving with an open container. Both the defendant and the passenger were handcuffed and placed in the back of the police car. The police then proceeded to search the vehicle and found the beer bottle in the center console as well as a “plastic baggie containing several white rocks” in the glove compartment. The defendant filed a pretrial motion to suppress the evidence found in the search of the vehicle. The trial court granted the motion, and the State appealed.

The analysis in the case begins with the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment protects us against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”  Searches or seizures conducted without a warrant are per se unreasonable.  However, there are a few exceptions to this general rule that have been established over the years through case law.  One exception to the requirement of a warrant for searches and seizures is when a person is arrested. Before the United States Supreme Court case, Arizona v. Gant (2009), police were permitted to search the passenger compartment of a vehicle when an occupant of the vehicle was arrested. However, in Gant, the US Supreme Court held that the police may search your car incident to an arrest only if either 1) the arrestee is unsecured and within reach of the passenger compartment of the vehicle at the time of the search or 2) it is reasonable to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest.

The trial court in Armstrong looked at the Gant exception to a warrant requirement and determined that the search was not authorized under Gant. The defendant was not unsecured or within reach of the passenger compartment of the vehicle at the time of the search, but instead handcuffed in the back of the police car. The court of appeals agreed with the trial court’s analysis of this first Gant exception, but did not address the second exception listed in Gant.

Instead the court of appeals faulted the trial court for not recognizing the automobile exception to the requirement of a warrant to search a vehicle. Under the automobile exception, “[i]f there is probable cause to believe a vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity, United States v. Ross . . . authorizes a search of any area of the vehicle in which the evidence might be found.”

A little background on the rationale behind the automobile exception is found in the North Carolina Supreme Court case, State v. Isleib (1987):

In a series of decisions beginning with Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 45 S.Ct. 280, 69 L.Ed. 543 (1925), the United States Supreme Court has held that a search warrant is not a prerequisite to the carrying out of a search based upon probable cause of a motor vehicle on public property. The so-called "automobile exception" to the warrant requirement carved out by Carroll and its progeny is founded upon two separate but related reasons: the inherent mobility of motor vehicles which makes it impracticable, if not impossible, for a law enforcement officer to obtain a warrant for the search of an automobile while the automobile remains within the officer's jurisdiction, id., and the decreased expectation of privacy which citizens have n motor vehicles, United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 102 S.Ct. 2157, 72 L.Ed.2d 572 (1982), which results from the physical characteristics of automobiles and their use. Cardwell v. Lewis, 417 U.S. 583, 94 S.Ct. 2464, 41 L.Ed.2d 325 (1974). In California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386,105 S.Ct. 2066, 85 L.Ed.2d 406 (1985), the Supreme Court elaborated on its rationale for the warrant exception, saying that warrantless searches of motor vehicles were sanctioned because "the pervasive schemes of regulation, which necessarily lead to reduced expectations of privacy, and the exigencies attendant to ready mobility justify searches without prior recourse to the authority of a magistrate so long as the overriding standard of probable cause is met."

In Armstrong, the officer smelled “a strong odor of marijuana coming from inside the vehicle.” The court noted that North Carolina courts widely recognize that the smell of marijuana “constitutes probable cause to search a vehicle.” Because the officers had probable cause to search the vehicle “ based upon the odor of marijuana, the officers could lawfully search every part of the [vehicle] where marijuana might reasonably be found, including the glove compartment.” Therefore, the court of appeals concluded that the search of the defendant’s vehicle was permitted under the automobile exception.

Although the court of appeals did not analyze the facts under the second exception in Gant, it seems that they might have reached the same conclusion under that exception, since the defendant was arrested for driving with open container and it was reasonable to believe that there was evidence of this offense, even in the glove compartment. If the defendant in Armstrong had been arrested for impaired driving, it is even more likely that the Gant exception would permit the search since evidence of a dwi offense might include more than just the one beer bottle in the console.

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