Warrantless Search of Vehicle Nabs Missouri Drug Trafficker - Criminal Law - U.S. Eighth Circuit
U.S. Eighth Circuit - The FindLaw 8th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Warrantless Search of Vehicle Nabs Missouri Drug Trafficker

Most drug runners don't invest time in crafting commanding street names like our favorite cable drama kingpins, U-Turn and Krazy 8; writing appellate briefs would be much more amusing if they did. However, one notable exception, who artfully balanced international flair and algebraic mystery, was Missouri trafficker Claude X.

Sadly, Claude X will have to settle for the best name on his cell block since the Eighth Circuit just upheld the warrantless search of his vehicle under the automobile exception.

Police discovered drugs in X's car after stopping the car to arrest his passenger, Melissa Owen, who had a pending warrant for check-kiting. While one officer detained Owen, another called dispatch to verify Owen's warrant and request backup from a K-9 officer.

When the arrest warrant was confirmed and the K-9 officer arrived, the officers ordered X out of the car to conduct a warrantless search of the vehicle. X exited the car, refused the search, and locked the doors, so he was handcuffed for obstruction.

After X was secured for unruliness, K-9 officer Marko, FindLaw's newly-minted Pooch of the Week, sniffed the car. No surprise: Marko alerted the police that there were drugs inside.

Whether it was a long term investigation, Claude X's fantastic name, or the antics of the drug-sniffing-wonder-dog that piqued the Feds' interest, by 2008, the DEA had a file on X that included gun and drug trafficking. In 2009, a federal grand jury charged X with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, and marijuana and use of a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime.

After X lost a pre-trial motion to suppress evidence of the drugs Marko located in his vehicle, the jury convicted X and sentenced him to life plus ten years of supervised release.

The Eighth Circuit upheld the warrantless search of X's vehicle because the police officers lawfully stopped X's vehicle to arrest Owen and did not search the car until after Marko alerted them. As the initial stop and the ultimate search of the vehicle were both lawful, suppression would be appropriate only if the lawful stop became unlawful because it was unnecessarily prolonged.

Here, it wasn't prolonged because Owen's possessions, including her purse, were still in X's car, and the police had not finished processing her arrest when Marko began sniffing.

While X argued that the drugs should have been suppressed under a search incident to arrest analysis, the circuit ruled that the automobile exception, which trumps search incident to arrest, governed the facts.

We understand the Eighth Circuit's reasoning, but we're not sure why Rin Tin Tin is needed to survey a car carrying a suspected check-kiter. We'll take it, because we like puppies, but searching Claude X's car incident to Owen's arrest smells like an awfully convenient way of getting into X's car without a warrant.

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