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The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits law enforcement from conducting searches that are “unreasonable.” What, exactly, makes something “unreasonable,” however, is something we’re still arguing over.
Now, a new case from the state of Louisiana is being appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States that could shed more light on the scope of consent searches.
The case began in 2012 when police in Louisiana noticed that Jacson Moore was one of the people who had received a package from a suspected marijuana distributor in Oakland, California. They watched as Moore brought the package into his home, only to leave moments later with a Styrofoam cooler that he put in the trunk of his car. Police had no warrant to search or arrest Moore. They did not bring in their drug sniffing dogs, either.
Instead, they tailed Moore, pulled him over, and lied to him, saying they were investigating an armed robbery. Moore consented to a search. The cops went right to the trunk and opened the cooler. Inside, they found several frozen fish, vacuum-sealed in a package. The police cut them open, and found six pounds of marijuana hidden inside them.
Moore was arrested and charged for drug crimes. He claimed that the search was unreasonable, violating the Fourth Amendment, and won at trial, but lost when prosecutors appealed. The Louisiana Supreme Court refused to hear the case, so now it’s being appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.
This particular case hits the nail on the head for one of the most serious of Fourth Amendment issues – the scope of consent searches.
In the case, the police had told Moore that they were investigating an armed robbery, but this was an outright lie – they were looking for drugs. Importantly, this is not some white lie that has no impact. As Judge Crichton, of the Supreme Court of Louisiana, pointed out when his court decided not to hear the case, searching for evidence of an armed robbery and searching for evidence of a drug crime are entirely different. Evidence of an armed robbery would not be found inside a vacuum-sealed package of fish, whereas evidence of a drug crime could.
So when Moore said that police could search his car for evidence of an armed robbery, but they instead looked for evidence of drug trafficking, did Moore really consent to a search? And if he didn’t consent to the drug search that the police conducted, is that “unreasonable” enough for the Fourth Amendment?
If the Supreme Court doesn’t take this case and strike the search down, we stand to see a lot of police lying about what they’re actually searching for.
William T. Bly is a criminal defense attorney stationed in Biddeford, Maine. If you’ve been arrested and charged for a crime, contact his law office online or at (207) 571-8146.
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