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Sixth Circuit Affirms Warrantless Search Evidence

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Crack is wack, especially when it's discovered during a warrantless search of an automobile; but that doesn't mean that it inadmissible.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that evidence seized from an automobile exception warrantless search of defendant's car, and the subsequent search of his girlfriend's home, could be used to prosecute him.

An anonymous informant contacted the Jackson Narcotics Enforcement Team (JNET) in Jackson, Mich. to report that one, Jamail Arnold, was selling crack cocaine out of his burgundy mid-1980s Monte Carlo. It was not the first time that JNET had received tips about Arnold.

On this occasion, JNET followed the informant's tip to find Arnold's car surrounded by a group of people standing near the open trunk. After losing Arnold in traffic, JNET scheduled a controlled buy from Arnold using the confidential informant, and arranged for a marked police car to stop Arnold's car before Arnold reached the deal location.

The plan worked. While searching Arnold's car, JNET found a grocery bag filled with crack cocaine, digital scales, and sandwich bags in the trunk. Based on this contraband, officers went to locate Arnold's other known vehicles, believing they would contain more drug evidence.

In one of those known vehicles, JNET found Arnold's girlfriend, Camille Truman. Truman mentioned that Arnold had been living at her apartment for a few days, so JNET obtained a warrant to search her apartment. The search yielded two guns and more drug-related contraband.

At his trial for drug charges, Arnold argued that the police did not have probable cause to stop and search his vehicle, the resulting automobile search was unconstitutional, and the evidence must be suppressed.

Lawyers, of course, know that a warrantless automobile search is not "unreasonable if based on facts that would justify the issuance of a warrant, even though a warrant has not actually been obtained." The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that there was probable cause to believe Arnold's car contained contraband, thus the warrantless search was admissible under the automobile exception.

Arnold also argued that the evidence seized from Truman's apartment should be suppressed as fruit of the poisonous tree because the search warrant relied on evidence found during the allegedly unconstitutional vehicle search. Given the constitutionality of the trunk search, that argument also fell.

The firearm and drug contraband were seized from Truman's apartment under a valid search warrant. The probable cause for the search warrant was based on the drugs legally seized from Arnold's trunk. Because the trunk search is constitutional, any later discovered evidence is not considered fruit of the poisonous tree and is admissible.

The facts of this case indicate that the police surveilled Arnold for an extended period of time the day of the search, which suggests that they had time to obtain a warrant. With enough time, should police officers obtain warrants to search cars, or are you satisfied with law enforcement's reliance on the warrantless search automobile exception?

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