Consent to search car for drugs was limited to searching for luggage

Being found in possession of a controlled substance or an illegal drug in Texas can carry severe penalties. Often, drugs are discovered via a vehicle search, and many times the defendant has given an officer consent to perform the search.

However, if drugs are discovered due to a consent search, there are limits to the scope of the consent. The recent United States Court of Appeals case of U.S. v. Cotton provides an example.

Defendant consents to a search

The defendant was driving his rental car along Interstate 10 in Texas when he passed a police officer parked on the side of the road. Having already received a tip from a fellow officer that the defendant might be carrying drugs, the officer conducted a stop and a lengthy detention, running license checks with dispatch and separately questioning both the defendant and his passenger about their itinerary and their reasons for travel.

After a time, the officer sought the defendant's consent to search the rental car for drugs, and, as audio from the camera on the officer's vehicle recorded, when the officer asked for consent, twice the defendant specified that the officer could search his luggage.

The officer then began a meticulous search of the entire vehicle. Forty minutes into the search, and after first searching the trunk and the entire passenger cabin, the officer noticed loose screws on the door's panel and discovered plastic-wrapped bundles of crack cocaine inside the door. The defendant then made incriminating statements while trying to work out a deal with the officers. The defendant was sentenced to 121 months in prison, and appealed on the basis that the evidence from the search should have been excluded from the case.

Fruit of the poisonous tree?

In reviewing the case, the Court of Appeals noted that when conducting a warrantless search of a vehicle based on consent, officers have no more authority to search than it appears was given by the consent. The officers must take into account any express or implied limitations or qualifications attending that consent.

When asked for consent, the defendant replied twice that the officer could search his luggage. The government argued that, during the search of the vehicle for the defendant's luggage, the officer discovered the loose screws on the door panel in plain view.

However, by the officer's own testimony, after he located and searched the luggage in the backseat area of the car, the officer expanded his search to the vehicle itself. Authority to enter and search the car for luggage was not authority to search discrete locations within the car where luggage could not reasonably be expected to be found. Neither was it justification for lingering in and around the vehicle for 40 minutes.

Under the "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine, all evidence, in addition to the drugs, derived from the exploitation of the illegal search were suppressed, including the defendant's incriminating remarks made immediately on the heels of the officer's unlawful search and discovery of drugs. The defendant's conviction was vacated.

Circumstances of an arrest are crucial

The circumstances of an arrest and any related search may be crucial to the outcome of a drug case. The stakes are extremely high, as even a trace amount of certain drugs may be enough for a felony conviction in Texas.

If you have been arrested in Texas for possession of a controlled substance or illegal and dangerous drugs, it is important that you seek an experienced criminal defense attorney who will work aggressively to protect your rights and your freedom.