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U.S. v. SAAFIR, NO. 13-4049

Decided: June 11, 2014

The Fourth Circuit held that law enforcement conducted an unreasonable search of the defendant’s car because the probable cause to search the vehicle was tainted, and thus the defendant’s statements and evidence of the weapon found in the car should have been suppressed.

The defendant, Saafir, was pulled over by law enforcement for speeding through a residential area and for excessively tinted windows.  Saafir informed the officer that his license had been revoked.  The officer then ran a check on Saafir’s identification, and discovered that Saafir was considered an armed and dangerous person, a validated gang member and had an order to stay away from Durham Public Housing Authority property.  The officer radioed for backup and requested that Saafir step out of the car so that the officer could explain the warnings that the officer was giving for speeding and for tinted windows.  When Saafir exited the car, the officer noticed a flask in the pocket of the driver’s side door.  The officer informed Saafir of shootings and violence in the area and requested permission to frisk Saafir, to which Saafir consented.  After a second officer arrived, the officer then requested permission to search the vehicle, and Saafir refused, saying that he did not own the car.  The officer further attempted to “talk [Saafir] into letting him search the car,” stating that the driver could give consent without being the vehicle’s owner.  In the face of Saafir’s continued refusal, the officer said that he had probable cause to search the vehicle due to the presence of the flask because it is illegal to possess alcohol that is not in the original unopened manufacturer’s container.  Saafir did not give express consent, but did not stop the officers from conducting the search.  The officers asked if there was anything they should know about inside the vehicle. Saafir responded that there “might” be a gun in the vehicle and that the gun “might” be under the seat.  The officer’s did not find a weapon.  The officers did not check the flask, nor did either officer detect the odor of alcohol in the vehicle or on Saafir’s person.  Upon request, Saafir gave the officers the key to the locked glove box where they found a pistol.  In the district court, Saafir moved to suppress evidence of the pistol.  The district court denied his motion holding that the officer had probable cause based on Saafir’s statement that there “might” be a gun in the car.

The Fourth Circuit determined that the officer’s assertion of probable cause to search the vehicle based on the presence of the flask was “an independent, antecedent threat to violate the Fourth Amendment that ultimately fatally taints the search of the car and the seizure of the gun.”  A search is unreasonable when the searching officer lacks probable cause.  Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 696 (1996).  Probable cause exists “where the known facts and circumstances are sufficient to warrant a [person] of reasonable prudence in the belief that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found.”  Id.  There was no evidence that Saafir was under the influence of alcohol, and the officers did not check the flask for alcohol.  A search or seizure is unconstitutional when premised on a law enforcement officer’s misstatement of authority to perform the search or seizure.  E.g. Bumper v. North Carolina, 391 U.S. 543, 547–50 (1968) (invalidating a search of a home after the officer falsely stated that he had a warrant).  “[E]ngaging or threatening to engage in conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment” does not justify a law enforcement officer’s search or seizure.  Kentucky v. King, 131 S. Ct. 1849, 1858 (2011).  Thus, the Fourth Circuit reasoned that because Saafir’s admission that there might be a gun in the car was given only after the officer falsely stated his authority to search the car, Saafir’s admission could not provide probable cause to search the vehicle for a weapon.  The Court held that the evidence of the pistol and Saafir’s statements should have been suppressed.  Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 487–88 (1963).

Full Opinion

Verona Sheleena Rios