Police Must Ask Who Owns Which Bag When Searching Car: 5th Cir.

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on August 20, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

What is the scope of consent when the driver of a vehicle consents to a search of the car, but there are multiple passengers, all of whom have luggage in the trunk? The Fifth Circuit answered that question this week in U.S. v. Iraheta.

The case involved a lawful traffic stop of a car with a driver and two passengers. Deputies asked for the driver's consent to search the car, which he gave. They found duffel bags in the trunk, and not knowing which bag the driver owned, searched them all. Naturally, one of them contained cocaine and methamphetamine.

At the district court level, a magistrate granted the defendants' motions to suppress evidence on the ground that the search of the duffel bags exceeded the scope of the consent that the driver, William Iraheta, gave. After that, the government appealed.

Actual or Apparent Authority

The scope of consent to a search depends on what "the typical reasonable person [would] have understood by the exchange between the officer and the suspect." That's not so good for Iraheta, who would have reasonably understood a search of the car to include "an officer's search of unlocked containers within it." A search would, consequently, include every part of the car over which Iraheta had authority -- including his own duffel bag. There's the stickler, though: It would have included only his bag.

Prior to the search, deputies didn't know which bag belonged to whom. Three passengers, three bags: "[T]hese circumstances would put reasonable officers on notice that Iraheta could not give consent to a search of all of the bags in the trunk."

As a result, they couldn't establish that Iraheta had actual or apparent authority over any of them and should have defaulted to not searching any of them. Prior cases like this in the Fifth Circuit turned on what police knew: In one case, police knew that a duffel bag didn't belong to the person consenting to the search; in another, the non-consenting person was leaning on his bag in the back seat.

Police Have an Affirmative Duty to Inquire

This case presented a scenario that the government insisted was somewhere in between the two cases. The court, however, thought this case was pretty clear-cut. It was especially concerned that deputies believed they could search all the bags even though they acknowledged they didn't know how many bags were in the trunk, whom they belonged to, and never asked who owned which bag. Not cool, the court said, reaffirming that officers faced with such a situation have an affirmative duty to determine ownership; absence of knowledge of ownership doesn't create consent.

When faced with an equal number of passengers and luggage, police conducting a consensual search of a car must ask which bag belongs to which person in order to establish the scope of consent, or they risk having the search tossed out.

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