U.S. v. Ortiz, No. 11-4193

Decided Feb. 27, 2012

Maryland State Police received information from officers in New Jersey that a vehicle entering the state was believed to be carrying large amounts of drugs. A Maryland officer noticed the vehicle travelling thirteen miles an hour over the speed limit and pulled the car over. The driver, Lenny Ortiz, provided his license, the car’s registration, and an expired insurance card. The car did not belong to Ortiz and he was unable to give clear answers about its owner or his destination. Other troopers arrived on the scene and asked for Ortiz’s consent to search the car for drugs; Ortiz agreed but the officers did not search right away because police policy required the officers to finish a traffic stop and inform a person of his right to leave before obtaining consent to search.

After writing Ortiz a warning ticket, officers once again sought his permission to search the car—this time to ensure that it had not been stolen. Ortiz again consented and during the search, ostensibly to locate the car’s hidden VIN, officers pulled up a part of the rear seat and uncovered six kilograms of cocaine.

Ortiz moved to suppress the evidence as the fruit of an unlawful search. The district court agreed, finding that the officers did not have probable cause to perform a search, their original attempt to receive consent to search for drugs was invalid as against police policy, and the later consent to search the car for signs of theft did not authorize them to search underneath the seats of the car.

The Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded. The court found that the district court incorrectly elevated the standard necessary for probable cause, reiterating that probable cause only requires a “reasonable ground for belief of guilt” that amounts to “more than a bare suspicion,” and that such standard had been met here. Also, Ortiz had given consent to search for drugs that, though did not comply with Maryland Police policy, was still valid if not withdrawn. Moreover, Ortiz’s further consent to search the vehicle for signs of theft gave the officers the leeway to perform the search “as a reasonable officer would find necessary in conducting such a search” including, for example, pulling up the rear seat to check for the car’s VIN.

Full Opinion

-C. Alexander Cable

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