Thursday, June 19, 2014

Search "Fatally Tainted" By Officer's Incorrect Statement of Probable Cause

US v. Saafir: Saafir was pulled over in a residential area for speeding and excessively tinted windows.  During the stop, Saafir admitted that his license had been revoked, a fact confirmed by the officer.  The officer also retrieved information that suggested Saafir was armed and dangerous, a flight risk, and had a significant criminal record.  When the officer ordered Saafir out of the car, he saw a flask "commonly used to carry alcohol" in the driver's door map pocket.  Saafir consented to a patdown (which uncovered nothing), but refused consent to search the car, which was not his.  The officer stated that he had probable cause to believe Saafir was violating a North Carolina law prohibiting the carrying of alcohol in "other than . . . the opened manufacturer's original container," based on the flask.  With that said, Saafir told the officer there "might" be a gun in the vehicle.  A gun was found and Saafir was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm.  He moved to suppress the gun, but the motion was denied.  He entered a conditional guilty plea.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed, finding that the only basis for probable cause to search the car - that Saafir admitted there "might" be a gun inside - came after the officer incorrectly stated he had probable cause to search the car.  The officer's incorrect assertion that the flask (which was never shown to contain anything, much less alcohol) provided probable cause "fatally taints the search of the car."

Congrats to the MDNC Defender Office on the win!

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