WisBar News: Warrantless Search of Briefcase in Car Okay, Appeals Court Rules :

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    Warrantless Search of Briefcase in Car Okay, Appeals Court Rules 

    Joe Forward
    Legal Writer

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    The driver gave consent to search the car. The defendant, a passenger, did not limit this consent when he asked the police officer if he had a warrant to search a briefcase inside.

    Feb. 26, 2013 – Defendant Derik Wantland, charged with possession of morphine pills, claimed consent to search a vehicle did not apply to his briefcase inside the car. However, a state appeals court has upheld the search as constitutional.

    The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Warrantless searches are per se unreasonable, but an individual’s voluntary consent to search is an exception to the warrant requirement.

    Wantland was the passenger in a car driven by his brother when police pulled them over in Sheboygan County. Wantland’s brother consented to a search of the vehicle without limitation. The officer soon came upon a briefcase in the hatchback.

    “Got a warrant for that?” Derik Wantland asked before telling the officer the briefcase contained a laptop. The officer opened the briefcase. Inside, he found eye drops, antacid pills, and two unique pills later identified as morphine.

    The state charged Wantland with possession of a narcotic drug. The circuit court denied his motion to suppress, concluding that his question to police did not limit the officer’s authority to search the car under his brother’s consent. He was convicted after taking a plea deal, and appealed the court's decision on the motion to suppress evidence.

    A three-judge panel for the District II Wisconsin Court of Appeals affirmed in State v. Wantland, 2011AP3007-CR (Feb. 20, 2013), ruling that Wantland did not effectively object to the police search of his briefcase containing the drugs.

    “To effectively limit the consent to search previously given by the driver, Wantland needed to clearly and unequivocally assert that he, not the driver, was the owner of the briefcase and that he was objecting to the search of it,” Judge Mark Gundrum wrote.

    Asking whether the officer had a warrant for the briefcase was not a claim of ownership or a clear objection to the search, the appeals panel explained.

    The panel also rejected Wantland’s claim that the officer should have stopped the search when questioned about a warrant to determine who owned the briefcase. Officers face challenges and dangers that require swift searches, the panel noted.

    “Placing the burden upon an officer involved in a consensual roadside vehicle search to clarify a passenger’s vague and ambiguous comments about individual items within the vehicle would run contrary to these important considerations,” Judge Gundrum wrote. ​​