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Alaska: Court Bans Searching Gun Cases During Traffic Stops
Alaska Court of Appeals rules police cannot simply open and search a gun case during a traffic stop.

Judges Allard and MannheimerIf a police oficer wants to look through the contents of a rifle case during a trafic stop in Alaska, he will have to get a warrant. That was the finding of the state Court of Appeals which ruled in favor of Jesus Alberto Cardenas on Thursday.

Cardenas was fully cooperative when an Anchorage police officer pulled him over on August 30, 2014. When asked whether he was carrying any weapons, Cardenas pointed at the zipped-up black rifle bag that was out of reach in the back seat. The police officer told Cardenas to wait with his hands on the wheel while he took the rifle case to his squad car so he could look inside.

The case contained an unloaded rifle, an airsoft pistol and baggies of cocaine. Cardenas was arrested and charged with drug possession, and a trial court found him guilty. Last week, the three-judge appellate panel overturned the conviction on the grounds that the officer had no right to search the rifle case.

"Even assuming that the officer was entitled to take reasonable steps to ensure that the rifle was not within Cardenas's immediate reach and that these reasonable steps could include seizing the case, this could still be accomplished without opening the closed rifle case," Judge Marjorie Katharine Allard wrote.

Prosecutors had argued that it was permissible to search the case because it was obvious from its outward appearance that it contained a weapon. So its owner would have no reason to think the contents would be private. The Court of Appeals disagreed.

"A person's expectations of privacy in their personal belongings does not automatically disappear simply because the internal contents of a closed container are apparent from its outside appearance," Judge Allard explained. "Thus, for example, an officer is not entitled to open and search a person's computer case simply because the case is immediately identifiable as containing a computer, if the person's possession of the computer is not itself incriminating."

Aside from being pulled over a few times in the past for paperwork violations -- driving with a recently expired license or without proof of insurance -- Cardenas was not a "prohibited person" barred from carrying a gun.

"It is not unusual for Alaskans to carry guns, and it is not unusual for a gun to be in a vehicle," Judge Allard concluded. "Here, the record shows that Cardenas's actions were consistent with the actions of a responsible gun owner."

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

Source: Cardenas v. Alaksa (Court of Appeals, State of Alaska, 11/8/2018)

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