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Officer Needed Vehicle Passenger’s Consent Before Searching His Backpack

Posted on Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A police officer did not have the authority to search a backpack belonging to the passenger in a vehicle because the officer did not first obtain the passenger’s consent, the Michigan Supreme Court has unanimously ruled.

As a result, the drug-related evidence found in the backpack should have been suppressed at the passenger’s subsequent criminal trial, the Supreme Court held in People v Mead (Docket No. 156376).

The ruling in Mead overturned the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision in People v LaBelle, 478 Mich 891 (2007). In LaBelle, the Court ruled that passengers could not challenge the search of a vehicle in which they were riding.

“We overrule LaBelle, conclude that the defendant [in Mead] had a legitimate expectation of privacy in his backpack, and hold that the warrantless search of the defendant’s backpack was unreasonable because the driver lacked apparent common authority to consent to the search,” Chief Justice Bridget McCormack wrote for the Court. Therefore, “we … reverse the opinion of the Court of Appeals, vacate the trial court order denying the defendant’s motion to suppress, and remand the case to the Jackson Circuit Court for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”

Justice Megan Cavanagh did not participate in the decision because the matter was considered before she took office in January 2019.

After the Supreme Court issued its decision in Mead, the prosecution filed a motion for rehearing. The motion was denied.

Passenger With A Backpack

The defendant, Larry Mead, was a passenger in a vehicle that had been pulled over by Jackson Police Officer Richard Burkart for an expired license plate. Officer Burkart observed the defendant clutching a backpack on his lap. Both the defendant and the driver of the car told Officer Burkart the two had just met and that the driver was giving him (Mead) a ride. 

After Officer Burkart obtained the driver’s consent to search her person and the car, he asked the defendant to exit the vehicle. Upon getting out of the car, the defendant left his backpack on the passenger-side floorboard. Officer Burkart then searched the passenger side of the car, including the defendant’s backpack. He found methamphetamines, other drugs and drug paraphernalia in the backpack.

The defendant was arrested and charged with possession of methamphetamine. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in the backpack. At trial, Officer Burkart testified that, although he believed the backpack belonged to the defendant, he did not ask for the defendant’s consent to search it. The Jackson County Circuit Court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence found in the backpack. The defendant was convicted and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the defendant’s conviction in a published decision.

An Unconstitutional Search

On appeal, the defendant argued the search of his backpack was unlawful because it violated the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures of property by the government.

The Supreme Court agreed with the defendant’s argument, finding he had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the backpack and the warrantless search was unreasonable.

According to the Supreme Court, a passenger does not typically have a legitimate expectation of privacy in someone else’s vehicle. However, in this case, the Court said the defendant did have a legitimate expectation of privacy in the backpack. “A passenger’s personal property is not subsumed by the vehicle that carries it for Fourth Amendment purposes. A person can get in a car without leaving his Fourth Amendment rights at the curb.”

Moreover, the facts of the case showed that a reasonable police officer would not have believed the driver had the authority to consent to a search of the passenger’s backpack, the Supreme Court explained. “Officer Burkart testified that he believed the backpack belonged to the defendant,” the Court said, pointing out the evidence did not suggest the driver had “mutual use” of the backpack. “A backpack is used to transport personal items, which suggests individual ownership rather than common ownership,” the Court said, noting that Officer Burkart knew at the time of the search that the driver and the defendant were basically strangers. Given the “brief relationship” between the driver and the defendant, a reasonable officer could not conclude the driver had mutual use of the defendant’s backpack, the Court said.

In so finding, the Supreme Court compared the driver of the vehicle to a “rideshare driver” who merely has “short-term contact” with passengers. “[A]n objectively reasonable officer would not believe (absent unusual circumstances) that an Uber driver could consent to the search of his passenger’s purse, for example,” the Court observed.

Accordingly, because the driver did not have the apparent authority to consent to the search of the defendant’s backpack, the scope of her consent was irrelevant, the Supreme Court said. “We therefore hold that the warrantless search of the defendant’s backpack was unreasonable and violated his Fourth Amendment rights,” the Court said, concluding the drug evidence seized from the backpack should have been suppressed at trial.

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