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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Fish, the Fourth Amendment, and the Scope of Consent

It's always a pleasant surprise to see legal disputes that involve fish for nonsensical reasons, particularly fish-related disputes that may be heard by the United States Supreme Court. Cases involving salmon are of particular interest (see, e.g. here and here). 

I was therefore thrilled to see this report by James Gill of the New Orleans Advocate on the case of Jacson Moore, who thought he could successfully smuggle marijuana inside of frozen salmon. Moore thought wrong:

Baton Rouge police were staking out the UPS depot in Port Allen in 2012 when they noticed a package from Oakland, California, which is evidently the source of many illegal drug shipments. The package was addressed to Moore, who has a police record that would heighten suspicions that drugs were inside. 
The police department, of course, has sniffer dogs that could have settled the issue, but K-9 was not called in. Neither was a search warrant applied for. The cops just kept tabs.
Moore retrieved the package from his doorstep, re-emerging a little later with a Styrofoam container he put in the trunk of his car. He then drove off on an erratic path that indicated he was “heat checking” — trying to make sure the cops weren't on his tail. But they were, and, after 15 zigzagging minutes, he was pulled over. 
A rule of thumb might be that an offender with contraband in his car is best advised not to consent to a search, but Moore did so after being told that the police who stopped him were investigating an armed robbery. He evidently figured that nobody seeking the fruits of a heist would look twice at a few frozen members of the finny tribe. 
When the cops did, he said the fish were a present from his aunt. Officers cut them open and found the dope. Moore also gave them permission to search his apartment, where they found more cannabis and a gun.
Moore argued that the search was unconstitutional, and while the trial court agreed, its decision was overturned on appeal. The Louisiana Supreme Court declined to hear the case although Justice Crichton and Justice Weimar dissented. Joe Gyan Jr. of The Advocate reports that Moore is now trying to appeal to the United States Supreme Court:
In a legal brief filed at the Supreme Court, Messina claims the officers did not have probable cause to believe contraband was in the car, and he says Moore's consent to search the car was not freely and voluntarily given because officers lied about investigating a robbery. 
Messina acknowledges that officers can use deception during interrogations, but he stresses that such interrogations must be preceded by police informing the suspect of certain constitutional rights, such as the right to remain silent. 
"There is a distinction between misleading a defendant once he has relinquished a Constitutional right versus misleading a defendant in order to cause him to relinquish a Constitutional right," he argues in the Supreme Court documents.
There had better be a bit more to Messina's argument, since police can lie in order to gain consent for searches or entry onto property. No less a Fourth Amendment stickler than Justice Warren held that officers can lie about their identity to gain access to property in order to find evidence of drugs.

This is not to say that officers' ability to deceive is unlimited, nor is it to say that Moore does not have a decent Fourth Amendment argument. Indeed, the officers' lie about what they were searching for (evidence of an armed robbery), and the scope of their ultimate search raises significant constitutional concerns. But this case is not so much one of deceit as it is a test of the scope of consent in the Fourth Amendment context.

Police officers can ask for consent to search a suspect's home, vehicle, or person. If officers obtain consent to conduct a search, incriminating evidence that they discover can be admitted at trial. There are limits to the consent exception to Fourth Amendment protection. For one, the consent must be voluntary. Additionally, officers cannot exceed the scope of the authority they are granted by the subject's consent. As Justice Stevens wrote in Walter v. United States:
When an official search is properly authorized—whether by consent or by the issuance of a valid warrant—the scope of the search is limited by the terms of its authorization. Consent to search a garage would not implicitly authorize a search of an adjoining house; a warrant to search for a stolen refrigerator would not authorize the opening of desk drawers.
Moore consenting to a search of his vehicle puts him in a tough position, as the Court held in Florida v. Jimeno that giving officers consent to search a vehicle permits officers to search containers within the body of the car. A search of the trunk is a bit more complicated, though. From the Jimeno decision:

The facts of this case are therefore different from those in State v. Wells, supra, on which the Supreme Court of Florida relied in affirming the supression order in this case. There the Supreme Court of Florida held that consent to search the trunk of a car did not include authorization to pry open a locked briefcase found inside the trunk. It is very likely unreasonable to think that a suspect, by consenting to the search of his trunk, has agreed to the breaking open of a locked briefcase within the trunk, but it is otherwise with respect to a closed paper bag.
So under Fourth Amendment law officers can search a closed paper bag in a trunk, but (as the Court noted in some very strong dicta) not a locked briefcase in the trunk. What about the interior of vacuum sealed salmon that are inside a Styrofoam container in the trunk of a car?

The fish in Moore's case are far more analogous to a closed, locked container than a closed paper bag. Officers had to open a Styrofoam container, cut through vacuum sealed wrapping, and open up the fish before they found the drugs. Moore therefore has a strong argument that the officers went beyond the scope permitted by his consent to a search of the vehicle when they searched the fish in the trunk.

Moore's argument is strengthened by the fact that the officers said that they were looking for evidence of an armed robbery when they obtained Moore's consent. In granting the officers consent to search his vehicle for evidence of an armed robbery, Moore likely did not expect that officers would extend their search to the interiors of vacuum sealed fish in the trunk of his car, and has a strong argument that the officers' search went beyond the scope of the consent he granted.

Based on the facts that have been reported, the ideal outcome would be for the United States Supreme Court to grant certiorari and reverse the Louisiana Court of Appeals' decision. Based on the percentage of cases that the Supreme Court agrees to hear, however, I think that such an outcome is unlikely. Accordingly, Moore is most likely out of luck.

As a final note, while this post may be a bit last-minute for law students this semester, this case is a fantastic basis for a criminal procedure exam. Students studying for exams now (and next semester) should take note of this case and the many issues it raises. There may just be a few professors out there who think that this story would make a solid issue-spotter.

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