Girlfriend’s Consent to Search of “Man Bag” Leads to Charges

United States v. Williams, 2022 WL 2068862 (8th Cir. 2022)

A report by CNN Business says: “Some may mock the man-purse or ‘murse,’ but that doesn’t mean men shouldn’t carry a bag at all. In fact, investing in a nice everyday bag is important for any gentleman.” CEO World Magazine suggests that men carry a murse and pack it with moisturizer, hair cream, mouth fresheners, gums, tiny bottles of hand sanitizer and something to make them smell good. Hmm…Over four decades ago, when I lived in Europe, I carried a nice man bag—and I still have one. It doesn’t have room for moisturizers, but it conceals a nifty holster for a very large gun.

Detective Bain arrested Mosley Williams on a warrant for an armed kidnapping. Williams wasn’t carrying the gun believed to have been used in the kidnapping and it wasn’t in his car. Thinking Williams might call someone from jail and talk about the gun, Detective Bain monitored Williams’ phone calls. Sure enough, during a call between Williams and Wanda Wells, his girlfriend, Wells asked Williams if he had left “the thing” at her residence. Williams said he had and told Wells to put it “inside of the closet and forget about it.”

Detective Bain went to Wells’ apartment. Wells confirmed Williams lived in the apartment but added that she was the only one on the lease agreement. Wells initially denied there was a gun in the apartment, but eventually admitted she owned a gun that was registered in her name. Wells also admitted she allowed Williams to use her gun even though she was aware Williams was a previously convicted felon. After some conversation, Wells showed the officers where the gun was in the bedroom. Wells pointed to a gun in a black bag hanging from the bedroom door handle.

Detective Bain described the item in question as a “man bag” in the police report. At the suppression hearing, he testified that he didn’t know who owned the bag at the time he searched it. He testified it was the type of bag commonly used by both men and women (yep, my wife has one of those with a cleverly concealed holster, too, but with cats embroidered on the outer cover).

Wells signed a consent form allowing a search. Detective Bain opened the bag and saw a .45 caliber handgun, about 14 grams of methamphetamine and a letter addressed to Williams at a different address. Elsewhere in the bedroom, officers saw a .45 caliber magazine containing a live round, another .45 caliber bullet outside the magazine, a photograph of Williams and a digital scale. Wells acknowledged that she bought the gun for Williams.

As long as an officer has a good-faith belief that the person has authority to consent, the consent will be upheld in court.

Williams was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. He asked the court to suppress the evidence, claiming the officers exceeded the scope of Well’s consent to search the apartment. He also claimed Wells did not have the authority to consent to a search of his man purse.

The trial court agreed it was a man bag and that Detective Bain understood it to be so. Thus, it was not readily apparent whether Wells had authority to consent to a search of the man purse. The trial court ordered the evidence excluded. The prosecution appealed, arguing that the trial court improperly focused on who owned the man purse (Williams) and not whether Wells had apparent authority to consent to the search.

The court of appeals considered whether “the facts available to the officer at the time” of consent would lead a person of reasonable caution to believe Wells had authority over the item searched. As long as an officer has a good-faith belief that the person has authority to consent, the consent will be upheld in court (Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177 (1990)). Persons who have joint access to an area are usually deemed to have common authority to consent (United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164 (1974)). When Detective Bain and the other officers went to Wells’ apartment, they knew that Williams had told Wells to move the gun to a specific place within the apartment. Wells voluntarily led the officers to the location of the gun. The officers knew that 1) Wells owned the gun, 2) it was registered to her and 3) she had access to the bag. Wells never told the officers that it was Williams’ man bag or that her ability to use or access the bag was limited. As the only one on the apartment lease, Wells had actual and common authority over the apartment.

The appellate court held that the officers had sufficient evidence “to lead a person of reasonable caution in the officers’ situation to believe Wells had authority over the bag and could consent to a search of the bag for Fourth Amendment purposes.” Thus, the court reversed the trial court’s suppression order. Perhaps if Williams’s man purse had cute cats embroidered on the outside there might have been a different outcome. Probably not.

What carried the day was Detective Bain’s thoughtful and deliberate approach to the investigation. By carefully determining that Wells was the person listed on the lease and establishing her apparent authority over the apartment and the murse/purse/man bag, Detective Bain gathered, then documented, the information necessary to defeat the suppression motion.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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