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Consent to Search Luggage in Vehicle Limited

By Brett Snider, Esq. on July 09, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Law enforcement vehicle searches have become increasingly expansive over the last few decades, but sometimes the Fifth Circuit just has to put its foot down.

In U.S. v. Cotton, the Court determined that Marvin Cotton, who was stopped and searched by an officer on suspicion of drug trafficking, did not give consent to have an officer search his vehicle, only his luggage.

Cocaine Found in Door Panel

Cotton moved to appeal in his criminal case after losing a motion to suppress the evidence of 280 g of cocaine which was retrieved from inside the panel of the driver side rear door.

His case for suppression turned on the factual claim that he had only given the officer permission to "search [his] luggage" and not turn the car upside-down looking for evidence.

The Cotton court introduces the principles of consent to search a vehicle in Florida v. Jimeno, noting that police can open closed containers in a vehicle in order to find the subject that was consented to be searched.

The Fifth Circuit smartly noted that the factual record in Cotton's case does not support the officer acting reasonably: the arresting officer found Cotton's luggage and rifled through it, then proceeded to search the car.

This was not a case where the officer discovered more probable cause to continue the search before searching the limited areas that were consented to.

Also of note was the fact that officer took 40 minutes to search for Cotton's luggage which, along with Cotton's unequivocal limit to search only his luggage, tends to make the officer's conduct unreasonable.

Moving Things Around

The government's somewhat humorous assertion was that the officer in Cotton's case was continuing to look for Cotton's luggage in the door panel of the car. Ha.

The Fifth Circuit acknowledges that things can be moved in order to get to the object of the search, but in this case, there was no way that searching the door panel was going to assist in the search of Cotton's luggage.

As the Fifth Circuit agreed that the search of the car was in violation of Cotton's Fourth Amendment rights, the crack-cocaine seized and the confession that followed were fruit of the poisonous tree and thus must be suppressed.

There was not enough time or intervening circumstances to mitigate the tainted nature of the vehicle search, so Cotton's confession shouldn't be allowed into evidence.

Oddly enough, the Cotton Court didn't explore any alternatives to save the confession from the taint (e.g. collateral source, inevitable discovery, etc.), but it's possible that the government didn't make any arguments for those doctrines.

Bottom Line

Consent to search luggage means consent to search luggage and nothing more. Unless you happen to find anything on the way to luggage, your search has to stop where the consent does.

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