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Limits of Warrantless Protective Sweeps of Vehicles

On Behalf of | Oct 31, 2014 | civil rights

Are there any limits to the warrantless search of a vehicle anymore? Can the police search everywhere in a car once the occupants are removed under the justification of a “protective sweep”? At least one Florida judge recently said that there are some limits under the Constitution. State v Copeland, FLW Supp 2201 COPE (2nd Circuit, Leon County, August 13, 2014).

In Copeland, officers with the Tallahassee Police Department conducted a traffic stop of a vehicle in connection with a home invasion robbery. The officers had suspected that the car contained stolen goods. They removed the three occupants from the vehicle, placed them in handcuffs, and then conducted a protective search of the car. The trunk of the car contained a backpack, marijuana, and a firearm. The robbery victims identified two of the occupants at the scene.

But why did the police need to examine the trunk of the car as part of their protective search? Once all three of the occupants were outside of the vehicle and placed into handcuffs, what threat did the closed trunk present? When asked this question, the lead officer stated that she was following the “one-plus rule”. This police department rule supposedly meant that, when making an arrest, an officer should always consider the possible presence of another person in the car. Once the three occupants were removed from their car, the officer looked in the trunk to make sure that “no one else was inside”.

The Court did not agree. A protective sweep is supposed to be a search of an area for other people who might pose a threat to the safety of officers. A sweep can only be done when officers have a reasonable belief that danger actually exists. Police can also search a vehicle when there is probable cause to believe that evidence connected to the crime of arrest will be found. Here, however, the officer had no reason to believe that another person would be hiding in the trunk.

In suppressing the evidence obtained from the trunk, the court found that the “one-plus rule” was merely an attempt to justify a warrantless search without probable cause. The officers could simply have obtained a search warrant for the trunk or impounded the vehicle after the occupants’ arrests and performed a legal inventory search. Instead, the police searched the trunk, after handcuffing the Defendants, and after finding no evidence in the cab of the car. In the words of the court, “To allow this search to stand would stretch the very fabric of the Constitution to the breaking point.”