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Trunk searches and truncated justice

May 09, 2007 Trunk searches and truncated justice

Image from National Institute of Standards & Technology.

Cars are ripe for police stops (e.g., see Maryland’s Wilson case, where the police stopped a car merely for driving 62 miles per hour in a 55 MPH zone). After stopping a car, the police look for criminal activity afoot beyond any traffic violation. This entry addresses some court cases addressing searches of car trunks and searches of cars.  

The Supreme Court’s Carroll doctrine (Carroll v. U.S., 267 U.S. 132 (1925)) narrows (and, under current Supreme Court case law) probably eliminates) the circumstances under which a warrant is needed to search a vehicle for probable cause, on the basis that a house does not go anywhere pending obtaining a search warrant, but the car can be driven away.

Although police are permitted to search a car’s passenger compartment pursuant to the lawful arrest of the driver or passenger, Thornton v. U.S., 541 U.S. 615 (2004), the search incident to arrest, by itself, is not permitted to extend to the car’s trunk. U.S. v. Turner, 293 F.3d 541(D.C. Cir. 2002); Dixon v. Maryland, 133 Md. App. 654, cert. denied, 758 A.2d 1063 (2000). However, this passenger compartment-trunk dichotomy goes out the window when police have probable cause to believe contraband is in the trunk. U.S. v. Turner, 293 F.3d 541 (the strong odor of burnt marijuana in the passenger compartment provided probable cause to search the trunk of a car lawfully stopped for a license plate violation).

Unfortunately, Maryland’s intermediate appellate court last week muddied the distinction between a strong odor of burnt marijuana justifying a vehicle search versus a faint odor of burnt marijuana (which makes it more possible that the marijuana was smoked long before, thus providing weaker grounds to believe that marijuana is present in the car) versus the harder-to-distinguish smell (if it can be honestly distinguished at all) of unburnt marijuana. Wilson v. Maryland, ___ Md. App. ___ (May 2, 2007) (giving cops the green light to search a car’s passenger compartment and trunk just about any time they smell what they reasonably believe to be marijuana, apparently even if it is unsmoked or unburnt).

Finally, even if lacking probable cause to search a car, police are permitted to frisk a car for weapons upon having reasonable articulable suspicion that weapons are present. Glover v. Com., 3 Va. App. 152, 348 S.E.2d 434, (1986); aff’d 236 Va. 1; 372 S.E.2d 134 (1988).

Sometimes walking sounds like a preferable means of travel. Jon Katz.

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