State v. Fizovic and Searching Cars for Alcohol

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Author’s Note:  This post has been modified from its original version in response to a helpful comment by a reader.

An officer sees a man drink from a can of beer while the man drives through a public parking deck. The officer stops the man’s car and sees the beer bottle can in plain view. He then asks the man to step out of the vehicle. May the officer open the car’s console to search for additional evidence?

Yes, said the court of appeals today in State v Fizovic, ___ N.C. App. ___ , ___ S.E.2d ___ (2015). The console search in Fizovic turned up a loaded revolver, which the defendant–a convicted felon–was not allowed to possess. The court of appeals held that the search was justified as incident to the defendant’s arrest, which occurred shortly after the search. The court further determined that that the search was permissible under Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009), as it was reasonable to believe that evidence relevant to the open container offense would be found in the car’s console.

Facts.

There are a few more facts you should know. Billy Wyatt, the “officer” who stopped Fizovic was working for a private security company rather than a law enforcement agency. Wyatt was patrolling a Greensboro parking deck when he saw Fizovic drive up a ramp within the deck while drinking a beer. Wyatt stopped Fizovic and asked to see his driver’s license. Fizovic showed him a resident alien card. When Wyatt asked again for Fizovic’s driver’s license, Fizovic said his license was in the center console of his car and began to reach for it. Concerned for his safety, Wyatt stopped Fizovic and asked him to step out of the car.

By this time, Officer Shaffer of the Greensboro Police Department had arrived on the scene along with another security company employee. Wyatt patted down Fizovic and asked him if he had drugs or weapons in the car. Fizovic said he did not.

Officer Shaffer then searched the center console, where he found a loaded .357 Taurus revolver. He did not find a driver’s license. Wyatt asked Fizovic why he did not tell him there was a weapon in the car. Fizovic said it was because he was a convicted felon. Fizovic then was arrested for unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon and for the misdemeanor offense of driving with an open container of alcohol.

The Issues.

Fizovic moved to suppress the evidence gathered in the console search. He argued that the search was unlawful on two grounds: (1) it was a “search incident to citation,” rather than incident to arrest; and (2) the officer already had obtained sufficient evidence to prosecute the open container offense.

Fizovic did not challenge the trial court’s determinations that Wyatt had probable cause to arrest Fizovic at the beginning of the stop for the open container violation, that the center console of Fizovic’s car was large enough to hold beer cans, and that it is common to find alcohol in the vehicles of drivers who are stopped for alcohol violations.

Search incident to arrest.

The court of appeals rejected Fizovic’s contention that his car was searched incident to citation rather than arrest, relying on the fact that Fizovic was arrested–albeit after the search. The court cited as support its holding in State v. Wooten, 34 N.C. App. 85, 89 (1977), that “[w]here a search of a suspect’s person occurs before of instead of after formal arrest, such search can be equally justified as ‘incident to the arrest’ provided probable cause to arrest existed prior to the search, and it is clear that the evidence seized was in no way necessary to establish the probable cause.” Fizovic’s failure to challenge the trial court’s determination that Wyatt in fact had probable cause to arrest him before the search thus played a central role in the court’s analysis. The appellate court deemed it irrelevant that, before the search was conducted, Wyatt intended only to cite Fizovic and not to arrest him.

Search for evidence of offense.

The court of appeals determined that Fizovic’s circumstances were more like State v. Foy, 208 N.C. App. 562 (2010) (finding that officer’s search of the defendant’s truck following his arrest for carrying a concealed weapon was lawful as it was reasonable to believe that further evidence of the crime, such as another concealed weapon, could be found in the truck) than State v. Johnson, 204 N.C. App. 259 (2010) (search of vehicle following defendant’s arrest for driving while license revoked was unlawful as it was not reasonable to believe evidence related to the offense would be found). Given Fizovic’s arrest for an open container violation, the appellate court explained that an officer could reasonably have expected to find open containers of alcohol in the console of Fizovic’s vehicle.

Circumstantial versus categorical approach.

The North Carolina Supreme Court in State v. Mbackeanother vehicle search incident to arrest case, stressed that “the ‘reasonable to believe’ standard required by Gant will not routinely be based on the nature or type of the offense of arrest.” Instead. the court explained that “the circumstances of each case ordinarily will determine the propriety of any vehicular searches conducted incident to an arrest.”

But just as one is left to wonder whether that is a distinction with a difference when it comes to searching for evidence of concealed weapons crimes (the offense of arrest in Mbacke and Foy), one might reasonably query post-Fizovic whether vehicle searches may categorically be conducted incident to arrest when the offense of arrest is a driving offense that involves alcohol.

15 comments on “State v. Fizovic and Searching Cars for Alcohol

  1. The open container would be a violation of 18B-401(a) : it shall be unlawful for a person who is driving a motor vehicle on a highway or public vehicular area to consume in the passenger area of that vehicle any malt beverage or unforgiving wine. Violation of this subsection shall constitute a Class 3 misdemeanor.

    • Thanks, Aleman. You are correct. While having an open container of beer in a public vehicular area such as a parking deck is not a violation of G.S. 20-138.7, G.S. 18B-401(a) does make it a crime to drink beer in a parking deck.

  2. I notice in the article the “issues” section it says Wyatt arrested the subject, but earlier Wyatt was identified as a private security officer.
    Did the court reference NCGS 15A-404 at all in this case?
    What, if any, impact may this scenario have on interactions under 15A-404?

    • Brian: I wondered about this as well, thinking that perhaps Wyatt was a sworn officer moonlighting as a security guard. The court did not address G.S. 15A-404–a provision address in this earlier post: http://nccriminallaw.sog.unc.edu/citizens-arrest/

      • Ofc. Wyatt was a sworn company police officer under NCGS 74E at the time of this incident.

        • Thank you for that clarification Neefe.

  3. I know this is like comparing apples to oranges, but was the driver drinking a CAN of beer or a BOTTLE? That sort of threw me at first. Then, there’s the plain view doctrine as the officer can articulate seeing the driver actually drink from the beer can or bottle, which in and of itself doesn’t suffice it to say the fluid therein actually was beer. There would have to be more evidence of intoxication OR at least inebriation and, if there is probable cause, either effect an arrest for public intoxication, DUI, DWI, etc. But, for and officer to articulate that he/she were “concerned for their safety” by someone merely stating their license is in the console is beyond me. My thought process is leave it there, don’t reach for anything, and by NO means have someone step out of the car when you’re alone. SO many things can go wrong from there. As long as he’s in the car, I have the advantage.

    • Who puts water in a beer bottle and then drinks from it while driving? It defies common sense.

      Traffic stops are the most dangerous thing a police officer does. Since the license was claimed to be in the console, it is perfectly reasonable for a prudent officer concerned for his safety to remove the suspect from the vehicle and get the license himself.

      • There actually was no drivers license present..He was revoked for prior DUI.. I wonder what he was going to get out of the center console?

      • Thank you Amy. Your comments are 200% on point.

    • Thanks, Dennis. It was a can, not a bottle. I’ve corrected the error.

  4. Now the more interesting question is, what of empty bottles of alcohol? Would that mean an empty bottle of spirits, being taken to a dumpster would be an “opened container”?

  5. My local county Sheriff told me that any person who has consumed any alcohol, even in a private residence, can be detained if they are in public. They do not have to intoxicated, and they have no right to a breath test or blood test. Once in custody you can and will be searched, and since you have not been arrested you can’t be bailed out. I was shocked when this happened to me, and the bail bondsman my attorney sent was turned away. It is safer to drive if you have consumed alcohol (but not to excess) because then they have to prove you are impaired. Can this e right. How do bars and restaurants stay in busiess if their patrons can’t get home?

    • There would have to be more evidence of intoxication OR at least inebriation and, if there is probable cause, either effect an arrest for public intoxication, DUI, DWI, etc. But, for and officer to articulate that he/she were “concerned for their safety” by someone merely stating their license is in the console is beyond me. My thought process is leave it there, don’t reach for anything, and by NO means have someone step out of the car when you’re alone.

      • Anton let’s not forget he was going for a drivers license that did not exist! So what was he really trying to get for me?

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