This question came from an officer in New Jersey. Can police search the trunk of a car on the motor vehicle exception?
The hypothetical goes something like this: patrol was notified of a suspicious person and vehicle. They found a male under the influence of heroin located right outside the vehicle. A semi-conscious female was under the influence of heroin in the passenger seat. So the male tells the cops that there are heroin, crack, and a handgun in the vehicle. The cops then search the passenger compartment and they find those things.
So the male wasn’t lying. There were drugs and a gun in the vehicle. Then the cops asked for consent to search the trunk. The male denies consent. Can the police search the trunk on the motor vehicle exception? The answer is most likely going to be, “Yes.”
Here’s why. First, do you think that under these circumstances a judge would give you a warrant for the trunk? And I think the answer is, “Yes.”
There were multiple drugs found in the car. There was heroin in the car, which is indicative of selling and trafficking; there was a gun in the car; again, indicative of trafficking. Dealers use weapons for self help; they can’t call 911 when they get robbed, right? So they have to resort to their own self defense.
So it seems that he may be involved in dealing, and where would there be more evidence of that crime? It’s certainly in the trunk, maybe even in the engine compartment. Dealers are known to keep just a small supply in the passenger apartment. But the big stuff is in the trunk and sometimes in the engine compartment. It could be in the air filter, under the manifold cover, in a fuse box, and so forth.
So that’s really what it comes down to. If the officers do feel confident that they have the facts and circumstances that would lead a neutral and detached judge to issue a warrant for that trunk, then it’s searchable under the motor vehicle exception.
If the cop does not feel confident, and does not have any facts or circumstances about why he believes that there’s more evidence in the trunk, then don’t search it. But if you do, then that’s the quintessential motor vehicle exception search.