Thursday, April 30, 2009

Limited Consent to Search Means Limited Consent

US v. Neely: Neely was pulled over late at night in Charlotte, NC, after leaving a parking lot in a high crime area without turning his lights on. After the officer received a valid license and registration, he gave Neely a verbal warning about the lights. He then asked, before returning the license and registration, whether Neely had any "guns, weapons, grenades, bazookas [in the vehicle]." Neely said he did not, but offered to let the officer search the trunk. After Neely searched (in vain) for the trunk release button, the officer ordered Neely out of the car. He complied, giving his keys to the officer, who then patted him down, and had him sit on the hood of the police car. Although the pat down didn't uncover anything, the officer started questioning Neely about why he was out so late at night. When backup arrived, the officer began to search the passenger compartment of the car, but not the trunk. In the passenger compartment, he found a gun. Neely was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. After a denial of his motion to suppress, Neely pleaded guilty to that offense.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's denial of the motion to suppress. First, the court concluded that the officer's search exceeded the scope of Neely's consent to search the trunk. Specifically, it rejected the district court's conclusion that Neely's handing of keys, generally cooperative manner, and failure to object to the search of the passenger compartment broadened the scope of his consent to search the trunk. Second, the court concluded that the search was not a proper protective search because the officer could not have reasonably believed that Neely was dangerous when he began the search.

Congrats to the defender office in the WDNC on the win!

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