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Search of a handcuffed suspect’s backpack ruled unlawful by the Fourth Circuit.

Author: Jim Chapman

 

In Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009), the United States Supreme Court held that, incident to an arrest, a vehicle may be searched without a warrant if it was reasonable for the police officers to believe that the arrestee “could have accessed his car at the time of the search.” Id. at 344. The issue that the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit confronted in United States v. Davis, 997 F.3d 191 (4th Cir. 2021), was whether the Supreme Court’s holding in Gant applied beyond the automobile context to the search of a backpack. The relevant facts are as follows.

On March 1, 2017, police officer Derek Richardson of the Holly Springs, North Carolina Police Department stopped a gray Honda Accord driven by Defendant Howard Davis because Officer Richardson believed that the vehicle’s windows were tinted too dark in violation of North Carolina law. Officer Richardson approached Davis and explained that he had pulled Davis over because of the vehicle’s window tint. Officer Richardson, then, obtained Davis’ driver’s license and his proof of insurance. Officer Richardson’s search of the relevant databases revealed that Davis’s license was valid and that Davis “had a history of felony drug charges and convictions.”

Thereafter, two additional uniformed officers arrived in a separate patrol car, parked behind Officer Richardson’s vehicle, and activated their car’s lights. About three minutes into the stop, while Officer Richardson talked with the other two officers, Davis put his hand out of his window and made a pointing gesture indicating that he was leaving. Davis then drove off without his license or proof of insurance, which were still in Officer Richardson’s possession.

The officers gave chase. Davis raced through a residential neighborhood, at times reaching speeds of up to 50 miles per hour—double the neighborhood’s speed limit. The pursuit continued until Davis reached a dead-end cul-de-sac, where he drove in between two houses and into someone’s backyard, got out of his vehicle carrying a backpack, ran on foot into a swamp, and got stuck in knee-high water. Officer Richardson, also on foot and roughly seven to ten yards behind Davis, drew his service weapon and ordered Davis to come out of the swamp. Davis complied, returned to dry land, dropped the backpack, and laid down on his stomach. Officer Richardson patted Davis down and found a large amount of cash on Davis’ person. Officer Richardson then handcuffed Davis’ hands behind his back and placed him under arrest for several traffic violations, including felony fleeing to elude.

Afterwards, Officer Richardson unzipped Davis’ closed backpack and discovered large amounts of cash and two plastic bags containing what appeared to be cocaine. A search of Davis’ vehicle revealed a digital scale, a bag containing bundles of cash, and other items. The officers also received a report that a witness had observed Davis toss a firearm out of his car window while fleeing. Acting on this information, the officers recovered a .45 caliber handgun from Davis’ path of flight through the residential area.

On June 7, 2017, a federal grand jury returned a three-count indictment charging Davis with possession with intent to distribute twenty-eight grams or more of cocaine base and an unspecified quantity of cocaine; possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense; and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Before trial, Davis filed a motion to suppress, contending that the evidence seized from his backpack and from his vehicle should be suppressed because the officers’ warrantless searches violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina denied Davis’s motion to suppress.

On September 11, 2018, a jury returned a guilty verdict against Davis on all three Counts. After dismissing Davis’ felon-in-possession conviction, the District Court sentenced Davis to 420 months imprisonment on the remaining counts. Davis timely filed a notice of appeal.

The Fourth Circuit began its consideration of Davis’ appeal by reiterating that the Fourth Amendment guarantees the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. A warrantless search by the police is invalid unless it falls within one of the narrow and well-delineated exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. One exception to the warrant requirement authorizes searches incident to a lawful arrest. The search-incident-to-arrest exception allows arresting officers to search both the arrestee’s person and the area within his immediate control. In articulating the limits of the search-incident-to-arrest exception, the Supreme Court has emphasized that it was “reasonable” for arresting officers to search the person being arrested and the area within his reach (1) “in order to remove any weapons that the [arrestee] might seek to use in order to resist arrest or effect his escape” and (2) “in order to prevent [the] concealment or destruction” of evidence. Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 763 (1969).

Years later, the Supreme Court decided Gant, which was directly applicable to Davis’ appeal. In Gant, police officers arrested the defendant for driving with a suspended license, handcuffed him, and locked him in the back seat of a patrol car. Two police officers then searched the defendant’s vehicle and found drugs and a firearm. On review, the Supreme Court held that the officers’ search was not a valid search incident to arrest, reaching two separate holdings.


First, the Supreme Court opined that, to read its prior decisions as authorizing a vehicle search incident to every recent occupant’s arrest, would untether the rule from the justifications underlying the Chimel exception. Relying on the rationales articulated in Chimel—specifically, officer safety and the preservation of evidence—the Supreme Court concluded that police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search. The ultimate inquiry under this first Gant holding is whether it was reasonable for the police to believe that the arrestee could have accessed his car at the time of the search.


Second, the Supreme Court concluded that circumstances unique to the vehicle context justify a search incident to a lawful arrest when it is reasonable to believe that evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle. And, because (1) the defendant had been secured and out of reach of the passenger compartment and (2) it was not reasonable to believe the vehicle contained evidence relevant to the crime of arrest—a traffic violation—the Supreme Court concluded that the search in Gant was unlawful.


Davis made multiple arguments to the Fourth Circuit regarding the officers’ alleged violation of his Fourth Amendment rights and the District Court’s alleged error in denying his motion to suppress. This article, however, focuses on Davis’ argument that the Fourth Circuit should apply the first Gant holding to non-vehicular containers that were not on the arrestee’s person—in this case, his backpack. Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit agreed with Davis that the first Gant holding applies outside of the vehicular context, and the Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court’s denial of Davis’ motion to suppress.


In reaching this conclusion, the Fourth Circuit opined, while Gant involved the warrantless search of a vehicle incident to an arrest, Chimel did not. Considering the Supreme Court’s reliance on the rationale of Chimel—a non-vehicle case—in reaching the first Gant holding, the Fourth Circuit did not read Gant as limited to the vehicular context. If the Supreme Court intended to limit both of its holdings in Chimel and Gant to vehicular searches, it certainly could have said so. Indeed, the Supreme Court specified that the second Gant holding was based on circumstances unique to the vehicle context. But, the Supreme Court made no similar statement regarding the first Gant holding. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit saw no reason to limit the first Gant holding—the one derived from Chimel—to searches of vehicles.

In reaching this conclusion, the Fourth Circuit noted that the Third, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits have each reached this same conclusion. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit held that the first Gant holding applies to searches of non-vehicular containers and further held that police officers can conduct warrantless searches of non-vehicular containers incident to a lawful arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the container at the time of the search.


Having reached this conclusion, the Fourth Circuit next needed to decide whether the District Court erred in denying Davis’ motion. The Fourth Circuit found that the District Court had erred in denying Davis’ motion to dismiss.


According to the Fourth Circuit, Officer Richardson’s warrantless search of Davis’ backpack was only permissible as a search incident to an arrest if it was reasonable for Officer Richardson to believe that Davis could have accessed the backpack at the time of the search. In making this determination, the Fourth Circuit considered whether Davis was unsecured and within reaching distance of his backpack at the time of the search. The evidence showed that, after Davis exited his vehicle with his backpack, he fled into a swamp and became bogged down in knee-high water. Officer Richardson, with his service weapon drawn, ordered Davis to exit the swamp, and Davis complied. Back on dry ground, Davis dropped his backpack and laid down on the ground, and Officer Richardson handcuffed Davis’ hands behind his back. The other officers, then, arrived.

Under these circumstances, the Fourth Circuit held that Officer Richardson’s warrantless search of Davis’ backpack was unlawful. The Fourth Circuit acknowledged that there is a level of precarity when police officers arrest a suspect who has fled arrest. Nevertheless, the Fourth Circuit concluded that there was no doubt that Davis was secured and was not within reaching distance of his backpack when Officer Richardson unzipped and searched it. Davis was face down on the ground and handcuffed with his hands behind his back. Davis had just been ordered out of the swamp at gunpoint. The only other individuals within eyesight were officers, who outnumbered Davis three to one. And, while this all took place in a residential area, it appears that there was no one else around to distract the officers. Without the fluid situation created by nearby observers, the officers were able to focus solely on Davis. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit said that it had no difficulty in concluding that Davis was secured.

As to whether the bag was within Davis’s reaching distance, the Fourth Circuit acknowledged that Davis dropped the bag next to him before lying down. By the time of the search, however, Davis was handcuffed—severely curtailing the distance that he could reach. Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit found that, at the moment in question, the handcuffed and face-down Davis had severely restrained mobility and was not within reaching distance of the backpack next to him.


Accordingly, in considering the search-incident-to-arrest exception, the Fourth Circuit noted that the proper question before the District Court was whether it was reasonable for Officer Richardson to believe that Davis could access his backpack at the time of the search. The Fourth Circuit held that the District Court committed legal error when it ruled on the motion to suppress without applying the relevant law. And, the record reflected that Davis was secure and not within reaching distance of his backpack when Officer Richardson searched it. As such, the Fourth Circuit held that there was no factual basis for finding that this was a proper search incident to arrest under the first Gant holding. Because the District Court erred in concluding that the search of Davis’ backpack was a lawful search incident to arrest, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remand the case with instructions to grant Davis’s motion to suppress.

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