The District of Columbia Court of Appeals heard arguments this morning on when it's still lawful for local police to search a car without a warrant after making a lawful arrest.
The U.S. Supreme Court tried to limit those types of searches in its 2009 decision in Arizona v. Gant. The high court did carve out some exceptions, though, which included searches where police have "reason to believe" they might find evidence of the crime.
The D.C. appeals court is being asked to decide what the standard should be for "reason to believe," and whether there could be types of crimes - in this case, driving under the influence - where it's generally assumed that warrantless searches are reasonable.
In the underlying case, a Virginia man, Larry Taylor, was arrested for driving under the influence in D.C. after he struck another car in 2010. He pleaded guilty to that crime, but successfully moved to suppress evidence of an unregistered gun that police found in his truck's glove compartment at the time.
The arresting officers reported that they searched Taylor's truck because, in their experience, they often found evidence of drinking in an arrestee's car - an open container of alcohol, for example. They added that they also had reason to think they might find evidence because of Taylor's high level of intoxication and false statements he made about his drinking that night.
District of Columbia Superior Court Judge J. Michael Ryan, in suppressing the gun evidence, wrote that relying on officers' past experience to decide whether a warrantless search is reasonable would essentially create entire categories of cases where it's generally assumed that those searches are lawful. That would go against the intent of Gant, Ryan wrote, which was to limit those searches. The U.S. attorney's office appealed.
Chief Judge Eric Washington and associate judges John Fisher and Catharine Easterly heard the case. Easterly peppered Assistant U.S. Attorney David Goodhand with questions, saying she had "trouble" with the government's argument that the nature of certain crimes made warrantless vehicle searches reasonable.
Goodhand said that an officer's past experience with certain crimes goes to whether they have a "common sense" reason to believe that they would find evidence of the crime in the car. He said that in circumstances like Taylor's where an arrestee is visibly intoxicated and police can smell alcohol on the breath, it's reasonable for police to believe that the suspect has been drinking in the car.
Easterly said she thought that sounded more like speculation. Goodhand replied that he disagreed, since the standard is that "we just have to show it wasn't a hunch." The government has maintained that they aren't advocating for a "per se rule," noting that there could still be cases where a search wouldn't be reasonable, such as when an officer sees a suspect leave a bar just before pulling them over.
Taylor's attorney, solo practitioner Jonathan Dailey, maintained that the government is trying to create a rule and go against the Supreme Court's intent in the Gant decision. If the court sided with the government and reversed Ryan's ruling, he said, "we're allowing this exception to swallow the rule."
Washington asked why a police officer's past experience wouldn't be considered evidence supporting a claim that they had reason to believe they would find evidence of the crime in the car. Dailey said he would consider that a "hunch," and not specific enough to the facts of any given arrest.
Later on, Washington asked Dailey about why it wasn't reasonable for police to search Taylor's truck given the totality of the circumstances, which included Taylor's high level of intoxication and his false statements about his drinking. Dailey replied that those factors went to the crime of drunk driving, but didn't connect the crime to anything that might have happened in Taylor's car.
Taylor served five days in jail after pleading guilty to the drunk driving charge. If the appeals court reverses Ryan's order suppressing the gun evidence and dismissing that case, Taylor will face charges of carrying an unlicensed pistol and possessing an unregistered firearm and ammunition.