December 12, 2011

Colorado Supreme Court 12-12-11 criminal law decision People v. Coates

People v. Coates             4th Amendment: Automobile  Searches - Search Incident to Arrest vs. Probable Cause
Facts: The police stopped the car in which Ms. Coates rode in the backseat. The police patted down the driver, claimed the 16 year-old 'consented' to the pat down (reason for the stop was a minor traffic offense), and supposedly found one pill of Xanax in the 16 year-old's pocket. After the discovery, the police ordered everyone out of the car, interrogated Ms. Coates, and searched both the passenger compartment and the trunk of the car. In the trunk, the police claimed to find a bottle of pills. Ms. Coates admitted to owning the car, but denied knowledge of the pills in the trunk. The defense moved to suppress all the evidence found in the trunk, and the trial court granted the motion. The trial court cited two bases for suppression. The trial court stated that the police possessed neither reasonable suspicion to search the trunk (search incident) nor probable cause to search the trunk for contraband. The prosecution appealed the order.
Issue: Whether the police, who found a pill of Xanax in the pocket of the driver, possessed probable cause to search the trunk?
Held: No.
Reasoning: As astonishing as the holding, Justice Coates wrote the decision with nary a dissenter.  First, the Court put to rest any fantasies cops and prosecutors have about using search incident to justify a general search of the entire car. The Court flat out stated in the beginning of its decision, "Because the evidence for which suppression was sought was not seized from the passenger compartment of the defendant’s vehicle, the search-incident-to-arrest exception could not justify its seizure under any circumstances." Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, ---,129 S.Ct. 1710, 1719 (2009).
            The Court then held that ticketing the driver for driving without a license and finding a Xanax pill in the driver's pocket did not amount to probable cause to search the trunk of the car. 
Link to People v. Coates here

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