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Boyfriend's 'Search Terms' Means OK to Search Girlfriend's Purse

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By William Peacock, Esq. on May 15, 2013 11:03 AM

Protip: If you are in the habit of using or possessing illegal drugs, don’t reside with a probationer — especially one subject to “search terms”.

Ronald Williams was on probation. An officer showed up to conduct a search incident to “search terms”, which allow an officer to search any area over which the probationer has access or control.

Williams lived with Brandy Ermi (the appellant) and her child. They all shared one bedroom. The officer searched that bedroom, and while searching, noticed a tan purse sitting out in the open in the middle of the room.

Was it the probationer's purse? Probably (and it seems factually) not. Most men do not own purses. Yet, the officer's search was held to be proper, both by the trial court and the Second Appellate District.

Why? Access and control. Probationer Williams, and his beloved Appellant Ermi, had joint control and "possession of the bedroom and all of the items in it ... Certainly there was access to a purse out in the middle of the bedroom."

Officers may search portions of a residence over which the officer reasonably believes the probationer has joint control or access. Not only did the probationer in this case share the bedroom, but he was seen exiting the bedroom when the officer arrived.

The appellant cites Veronica and Baker to argue that the officer cannot search an object that obviously does not belong to a male probationer. However, in Veronica, the court stated

"We do not, of course, suggest that simply because a garment or container is clearly designed for a person other than a parolee, that it may never be searched under the parolee's prerelease consent. The particular circumstances may indicate that the object is ... jointly possessed by him and another."

As for Baker, that was a factually distinguishable case. A woman was riding as a passenger, with her purse under her feet. In that situation, it wasn't clear that the probationer-driver had access to or control over the purse.

In another case, Smith, officers were conducting a probation search when the defendant, also a girlfriend of a probationer, gave the police permission to retrieve the key to the gun safe from her purse. Shortly thereafter, a narcotics police dog alerted to the purse, meth was found, and the court upheld the search, as the critical issue was not the gender-appropriateness of the purse, but whether the officer reasonably believed it was under probationer's control "or one to which he at least had access."

Get the picture? Live with a probationer subject to search and you'll almost certainly lose some of those important privacy rights. As the court points out, "[t]o rule otherwise would enable a probationer to flout a probation search by hiding drugs in a cohabitant's purse ..."

And in case you are curious, the officer did, in fact, find methamphetamines in her purse. She also, according to the officer, appeared to be under the influence.

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