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Federal Judge Declares Wrecked Car To Be Mobile
Federal judge rules a car stuck inside a building is mobile for the purposes of searching it without a warrant.

Carlis A. Scott
Courts frequently turn to legal fictions to ease the burden of prosecuting suspects who assert their constitutional rights. Civil forfeiture, for instance, allows police to confiscate cars and cash by pretending to charge inanimate objects, not suspects, with a crime. A federal judge earlier this month created a new example of fiction when he declared an SUV that had been driven through a building to be "readily mobile."

A 2013 Kia Sorrento rental SUV had left a gaping hole in a Verizon Wireless storefront in Bolivar, Missouri on October 14, 2013. The impact flattened the SUV's front left tire and ripped its undercarriage. The police officers arriving on the scene, Donald Coots and Sarah Ehbrecht, confirmed at the time that the vehicle was not going to be driven away.

As a legal matter, a vehicle must be "readily mobile" for it to qualify for the "automobile exception" to the Fourth Amendment requirement that police obtain a warrant before conducting a search. The idea behind the exception is that police would risk having the car and its evidence driven away if they took the time to contact a judge and obtain a warrant.

In this case, the officers obtained some evidence by consent. As they questioned the rented Kia's driver, Margaret Porter, they discovered she was wanted for prostitution. She let the officers search her purse, which contained cocaine and PCP.

Once the drugs were found, Carlis A. Scott, the passenger, was put in handcuffs and searched. They found him carrying $260 in cash, which they confiscated. The officers then decided to skip over the warrant and look through the Kia, where they found a Beretta 92FS 9mm handgun inside a fur coat contained within a trash bag. Scott says the bag was Porter's, not his.

Prosecutors charged Scott with being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm. Through his public defender, Scott insisted the search of the vehicle was a Fourth Amendment violation because the officers did not bother seeking a warrant from a Polk County judge until the following day.

"Corporal Coots and Officer Ehbrecht were already on alert that the incident at hand was perhaps more than a regular traffic accident when they arrived on scene because the Kia had been driven through a storefront," Magistrate Judge David P. Rush wrote in his analysis of the case. "There is, however, an issue regarding whether the automobile exception applies considering the mobility of the vehicle."

Scott's public defender insisted that the SUV was obviously immobile because it was wrecked, and there was no excuse for not obtaining a warrant before the search. The court saw it differently.

"Just prior to their arrival on scene the car was readily mobile because it had been driven into a building," Judge Rush wrote. "Disregarding whether the Kia was readily mobile, it is undisputed that Scott had a lesser expectation of privacy in this vehicle. Further, there was no evidence that the car was 'permanently immobile,' meaning that the automobile exception would apply."

Ultimately, the court saw no need to suppress the evidence because if the first search had not been performed, an "inventory search" would have been conducted before the SUV was towed away. That legitimate search would have turned up the same evidence. District Judge Douglas Harpool agreed with the magistrate judge's recommendation and allowed the evidence to stand. Scott's trial will continue.

A copy of the rulings is available in a 100k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File US v. Scott (US District Court, Western District Illinois, 5/2/2017)

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