United States v. Mirabal, 2017 WL 5761191 (10th Cir. 2017)
A deputy had reliable information (a tip from other government agents) that Gabriel Mirabal, a convicted felon, had an assault rifle in the trunk of his car. The deputy saw Mirabal speeding and stopped him. When the deputy opened the trunk to search for the assault rifle, he saw a large speaker box blocking his view into the deeper part of the trunk. He tried to move the speaker box, but could not. Based on his military experience, the deputy knew that an assault rifle could be hidden behind the speaker box.
The deputy went to the back seat, intending to try to fold down the seat and get a look at the back of the speaker box. First, however, he pulled down a folding recessed armrest. When he pulled down the armrest, the deputy saw a package of cocaine.
Mirabal challenged the scope of the deputy’s seat search, claiming that the seat search was constitutionally flawed. He argued that the space behind the speaker box was too small to hide an assault rifle, that the deputy could have crawled over the speaker box and viewed behind it, that the deputy did not know whether the rear seat had a trunk-access panel, and that the armrest was too small to hide a rifle.
The court made short work of Mirabal’s arguments, however, citing elements of the deputy’s testimony. The deputy testified his familiarity with the size of rifles. He also testified about his knowledge that many car trunks can be accessed through the back seat and that is sometimes the only practical way to search the rest of the trunk. The court had little difficulty in ruling against Mirabal because the deputy carefully connected the probable cause to search the trunk to the progressive steps of the search. The court held that the deputy’s “effort to see into the back of the trunk was reasonable.” Though only a traffic stop, building the case step by step and carefully reporting the reasons for taking the search to the back seat ensured admission of the evidence and the resulting conviction.
CHIEF KEN WALLENTINE is a Special Agent who directs the Utah Attorney General Training Center, overseeing use of force training and investigation and cold case homicide investigations. He is also a consultant and Senior Legal Advisor for Lexipol. Ken formerly served as Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General, serving over three decades in public safety before a brief retirement. He also serves as the Chairman of the Peace Officer Merit Commission of Greater Salt Lake County.