Scope of Consent to Search a Vehicle

Yesterday, I wrote about a pair of recent cases about weaving within a lane of travel. Today, I want to mention another pair of recent cases related to automobiles. Last month, the court of appeals decided, on the same day, two cases that address the scope of a suspect’s consent to search a vehicle. In State v. Lopez, __ N.C. App. __, __ S.E.2d __ (Feb. 21, 2012), an officer stopped a vehicle for speeding. One thing led to another, and the officer came to suspect that the driver was involved in the drug trade. The officer asked for, and received, consent to search the defendant’s vehicle. The officer didn’t just search the interior of the vehicle. He also opened the hood and “released several clips or latches” securing the air filter compartment, eventually finding cocaine in that compartment. The defendant argued that the officer’s conduct exceeded the scope of the consent, making an analogy between the air filter compartment and a closed container. The court of appeals ruled otherwise, stating that “both the hood and air filter compartment are part of the vehicle,” and observing that the defendant did not specifically exclude those areas from his consent.

The second case is State v. Schiro, __ N.C. App. __, __ S.E.2d __ (Feb. 21, 2012). In that case, officers stopped the defendant, obtained consent to search the defendant’s car, and eventually found a gun that had been used in a murder. The gun was found behind some trim in the vehicle’s trunk, and the defendant argued that his consent to search did not allow the search to be so intrusive. The trial court found that the vehicle’s rear quarter panels were fitted with carpet-over-cardboard interior trim and that the trim pieces “were loose,” suggesting that the search, while thorough, did no harm to the vehicle and was therefore permissible. The trial court also noted that the searching officer “was easily able to pull back the . . . trim.” The court of appeals agreed that, on those facts, the search did not exceed the scope of the defendant’s consent.

The Schiro court explicitly distinguished State v. Johnson, 177 N.C. App. 122 (2006), where “a plastic wall panel was removed by a law enforcement officer from the interior of defendant’s van, thereby facilitating discovery of . . . cocaine.” Johnson effectively holds that when a person gives an officer consent to search his vehicle, he should expect a “thorough” search but not “the destruction of his vehicle, its parts or contents.” The federal courts have likewise generally drawn the line at damaging the vehicle. See, e.g., United States v. Gonzalez, 512 F.3d 285 (6th Cir. 2008) (“Applying an objective reasonableness standard, we agree that [the defendant’s] consent to search could not be reasonably understood as authorizing [the officer] to damage the van.”); United States v. Alverez, 235 F.3d 1086 (8th Cir. 2000). Judges, lawyers, officers, and motorists should all be aware that consent to search a vehicle will normally be interpreted to include any part of the vehicle that can be accessed without damage.