Monday, November 02, 2015

Lack of Proabable Cause Dooms Search Undertaken After Traffic Stop

US v. Patiutka: Patiutka was pulled over on an Interstate in Virginia for failure to maintain a lane. He gave the name Roman Pak to the officer who, although he thought Patiutka might have been lying to him, "asked no follow-up questions about Patiutka's purported lie." The officer gave Patiutka a verbal warning, told him was "free to go," but later testified that "in his mind, [Patiutka] wasn't free to leave" because he "intended to reengage Patiutka in conversation and obtain consent to search the car." The officer got what he thought was consent, which led other officers (who arrived during the stop) to search the car and find a credit card reader and "four new, unopened iPads" sitting in a suitcase. Patiutka asked what was going on and objected to any search. The search stopped, but an officer announced he "was placing Patiutka in 'investigative detention'" and put him in a patrol car. The search resumed, further items indicative of credit card fraud were found, and Patiutka was taken to the police station, where he made "a number of incriminating statements."

Patiutka was charged with credit card fraud and identity theft and filed a motion to suppress the evidence found during the stop. At the suppression hearing, the officer who stopped him testified that Patiutka "would have ultimately arrested for providing a false ID" regardless of whether the search uncovered anything or not. The district court granted the motion, rejected several argument by the Government that the evidence was admissible under various exceptions to the warrant requirement in the Fourth Amendment.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the suppression, also rejected the Government's arguments to avoid the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement. First, the court rejected the argument that the search was done incident to a lawful arrest, namely for the state offense of providing false identity information to the officer. The court noted that there was no probable cause to support such a charge at the time Patiutka revoked his alleged consent and that the district court's conclusion that the officer's testimony wasn't credible (based on video of the stop) was not clearly erroneous. Second, the court rejected the Government's argument that the automobile exception meant a warrant was not required by holding that, regardless of a warrant, there was no probable cause to continue the search once Patiutka revoked his alleged consent. The items that had been found by that point could be legally possessed and "innocuous explanations for a driver's possession of these items abound."  Furthermore, collective knowledge of the officers could not save the search because the information that the first officer would have imparted to the others was, as the court already held, insufficient to support probable cause anyway.

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