Automobile Searches Without Warrant Federal Attorney Discusses

Automobile searches without warrant?

It looks like broad powers have been given to the government to search your automobile without a search warrant.

In U.S. v. Donahue, __ F.3d __, 2014 WL 4115949 (3d Cir. August 22, 2014), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed a District Court’s suppression of evidence.

Federal criminal defense lawyer, Hope Lefeber, explains how this case gives the government broad powers to search an automobile without a search warrant.

Interestingly, the case begins with the following observation by the Third Circuit: “[i]n light of the ‘automobile exception’ to the usual search warrant requirement, it is difficult to pick a worse place to conceal evidence of a crime than an automobile.”

According to court documents, defendant Donahue was convicted of fraud in the District of New Jersey.

But, instead of surrendering to authorities after his conviction, he fled the state.

Some time later, he was arrested while driving his son’s Ford Mustang in New Mexico. After he was arrested, the government seized his car and conducted various searches of it.

Behind the driver’s seat, they found a Glock .40 and a magazine. In the trunk, they found a bag containing a Glock semi-automatic.

Donahue was charged with failing to surrender and for firearms offenses.

At Donahue’s trial, the District Court granted Donahue’s motion to suppress the evidence found in the car, U.S. v. Donahue, 2013 WL 6080192, holding that the government lacked probable cause to conduct the search.

Interestingly, the Third Circuit reached the opposite conclusion.

As Ms. Lefeber explains, since the facts were not in dispute, the Third Circuit could conduct a plenary review of the District Court’s decision.

In other words, the Third Circuit was free to completely re-examine the issue and reach a different conclusion, which it did.

The key question on appeal was whether the government had probable cause to search the car without a warrant under the “automobile exception” to the Fourth Amendment, which allows searches of automobiles, without a warrant, if the officers have probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime will be found in the vehicle.

The government claimed that no warrant was needed because various items that were in plain view—such as some luggage and maps—gave rise to probable cause that further evidence of Donahue’s deliberate flight would be found in the car.

Donahue claimed that this was insufficient because these items did not suggest that contraband would be found in the car.

Because a probable cause analysis isn’t limited to the possible finding of contraband, the Third Circuit agreed with the government and ruled that these items did give rise to probable cause that further evidence of Donahue’s flight would be found.

Accordingly, the Third Circuit reversed the District Court’s suppression of the search and remanded the case.

Ms. Lefeber explains that this case further erodes the protection of the Fourth Amendment with respect to vehicle searches, (automobile searches without warrant).

Following the Donahue case, basically every vehicle can be searched because officers will arguably always have probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime will be found in the vehicle of a person that they stop.

Hope Lefeber is a federal criminal defense attorney in New York City. With over 30 years experience, she is recognized by Superlawyers and is ranked by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the top 100 Criminal Defense Lawyers in the United States.

Ms. Lefeber’s key areas of practice include defense in business and corporate fraud, mail and wire fraud, money laundering, tax fraud and other white collar crimes, conspiracy and drug offenses.

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