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Cops do not always need a warrant to search you, your vehicle, or your home. Searches conducted without a warrant are unreasonable, unless one of the many exceptions to the warrant requirement exist. Some of these exceptions include: consent, exigent circumstances, search incident to arrest, the plain view doctrine, inventory searches, Terry stop and frisk, and the automobile exception.

Recently, the Minnesota Supreme Court used the automobile exception to reverse the court of appeals in State v. Lester. The automobile exception allows police to conduct a warrantless search of a car, if probable cause exists to believe evidence or contraband will be found. The scope of this exception allows law enforcement to search the vehicle, including any containers in the vehicle that may conceal incriminating fruits – evidence or contraband.[1]

Mobility Requirement

The automobile exception dates back to the Prohibition era when the United States Supreme Court decided Carroll v. United States in 1925. The mobility of vehicles gave people the ability to transport liquor quickly across state lines and law enforcement did not have the time to secure warrants.[2] Therefore, the Court created the automobile exception to allow officers to search vehicles as long as they had probable cause.

Probable Cause Requirement

It is unlawful for officers to stop any vehicle and search it for no reason. The officer must have probable cause to believe they will find evidence or contraband in the vehicle. Defining probable cause is often an elusive task. Most courts define it as a reasonable belief, under the totality of the circumstances, that a crime has been committed or evidence of a crime will be found.[3]

The Minnesota Supreme Court in Lester explained probable cause as a “common-sense, nontechnical” concept that involves “the factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent [people], not legal technicians, act.”[4] The court went on to reason that the totality of the circumstances includes reasonable inferences that police officers draw from facts, based on their training and experience, because police officers may interpret circumstances differently than untrained persons.[5]

In Lester, the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision centered squarely on whether probable cause existed to search Lester’s car. In the fall of 2011, a confidential reliable informant (CRI) gave a tip to a Minneapolis police officer. The tip included information that a man nicknamed J. was going to be delivering a quantity of heroin to a specified location in Minneapolis within the next ten minutes. The CRI also described J.’s appearance, age, and that he observed J. possessing and selling heroin several times in the past month. Within three minutes, officers setup surveillance in the described area. Next, they observed a vehicle arrive in a gas station parking lot with a man fitting the CRI’s description of J. in the passenger seat. The driver turned out to be Lester.

Shortly after arriving at the gas station, J. exited the car and started talking on a phone while pacing the sidewalk. He would look back and forth several times, which made the officer believe J. was waiting for potential customers to arrive. J. then walked across the street and met up with a someone in a Grand Am. Based on the CRI’s tip and what they observed, the officers believed J. was selling heroin and the drug would be found in both the Grand Am and Lester’s vehicle. The officers stopped both vehicles and found several baggies of heroin in Lester’s vehicle concealed behind a panel in the center console.

The court of appeals reversed the district court’s order denying Lester’s motion to suppress based on an illegal search. The court of appeals reasoned that probable cause existed while J. was in the car with Lester, but it dissipated once J. left the car. The Minnesota Supreme Court did not agree and explained that probable cause needs to be analyzed under the totality of the circumstances. The totality here included the CRI’s tip specifically describing J., that he sells heroin, that he would be selling heroin within ten minutes at a specified location, and the officers corroboration of that tip and their observation of J. Therefore, the supreme court held the automobile exception excused the officer’s need to get a warrant and upheld the district court’s order denying the Lester’s motion to suppress.

Just as in the Prohibition era in the 1920s, vehicles can move illegal items quickly. As long as probable cause exists, courts will uphold the use of the automobile exception for warrantless searches.

Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense and DWI / DUI lawyer. He offices in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The American Institute of Criminal Law Attorneys named him one of Minnesota’s “Ten Best” Under 40 Attorneys for Client Satisfaction. He has a Lead Counsel Rating in Drunk Driving Defense and is a member of the National College of DUI Defense. Criminal defense attorney St. Paul; drug crimes attorney St. Paul MN; and Minneapolis DWI lawyer. For a free consultation call Attorney Ambrose at 651-800-4842 or email: ambroselegal@icloud.com.

[1] California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991).

[2] The Court extended the automobile exception further to include “readily mobile” vehicles, such as motor homes in California v. Carney.

[3] Carroll v. United States.

[4] Lester citing State v. Lee, 585 N.W.2d 378, 382 (Minn. 1998) (quoting Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 695-96 (1996)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

[5] Id. citing State v. Koppi, 798 N.W.2d 358, 362 (Minn. 2011); State v. Harris, 590 N.W.2d 90, 99 (Minn. 1999).

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