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Automobile exception to warrant requirement — probable cause to search trunk based on evidence found in passenger compartment

State v. Andrew Alexander Jackson, Jr., 2013 WI App 66; case activity

The circuit court erred in suppressing marijuana found in the trunk of Jackson’s car because there was probable cause to search the trunk based on the discovery of marijuana residue, $1,961 in cash, and a digital scale in the passenger compartment of the car:

¶10      Like in [United States v.Ross, [456 U.S. 798 (1982),] where the police were permitted to search the trunk because they had probable cause to believe that the defendant was selling drugs out of the trunk of his car, here, we conclude that the police were permitted to search the trunk because the evidence uncovered in the passenger compartment—the marijuana residue, the scale, and the large amount of cash in small denominations—gave them probable cause to believe that Jackson was selling drugs out of his car.[5]  As such, the police were permitted to search “‘every part of the vehicle and its contents,’” including the trunk, “‘that may conceal the object of the search,’” in this case, evidence of drug dealing.  See [Wyoming v.Houghton, 526 U.S. [295,] 301 [(1999)] (citation and emphasis omitted).  Because police had probable cause to search the trunk based upon the evidence located in the passenger compartment, we reverse and remand to the circuit court.

[5]  Jackson argues that the small amount of marijuana residue and the small size of the scale recovered from the center console did not suggest that he sold drugs, but rather, at most, merely suggested that he recreationally used marijuana.  In short, we find Jackson’s assertion that an individual who is only recreationally using marijuana and not selling it would need a digital scale in his or her car to be absurd.

The court sets out only half the standard for warrantless search of a car when it says the police may search if they have probable cause to believe the car contains contraband (¶8); the second part is whether the vehicle is readily mobile,  State v. Marquardt, 2001 WI App 219, ¶31, 247 Wis. 2d 765, 635 N.W.2d 188, and that was apparently not an issue here.

That quibble aside, one might ask why the police were searching the passenger compartment in the first place. The opinion notes only that the officer smelled “fresh marijuana coming from inside the car.” (¶8). The circuit court concluded the search of the passenger compartment was lawful, but suppressed the evidence discovered in the trunk because the officer’s testimony that he smelled fresh marijuana coming from the trunk was incredible. (¶¶5, 11). Indeed, the officer’s testimony earned a bit of derision from the circuit court, who remarked on “these super sniffer police officers that can smell marijuana through trunks, through bags, anyplace…” even though the judge (and others) can’t smell marijuana that is sitting in the courtroom (being offered as evidence, presumably). (¶5).

The court’s disbelief of the officer’s claims of olfactory prowess was limited to what the officer claimed he smelled in the trunk, and so the court suppressed only that evidence, which totaled 231 grams of pot. (¶¶4, 5). Maybe the court should have extended its skepticism to the officer’s claim he smelled marijuana coming from inside the car, given that the marijuana found in the passenger compartment weighed all of 0.02 grams, according to the state’s brief (at 3-4; available here). That argument is beside the point, though, because Jackson didn’t cross-appeal the circuit court’s decision not to suppress the evidence found in the passenger compartment. (¶5 n.3).

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