No Expectation of Privacy in Car Parked in Apartment Building Lot

by | June 27, 2018

United States v. Jones, (2nd Cir. 2018)

Rashaud Jones had long been suspected by the local drug task force of trafficking cocaine. During surveillance, officers saw Jones meeting regularly with Upshaw, Tyson and Rivera on Evergreen Avenue. After one such meeting, officers watched Upshaw commit traffic violations. They stopped Upshaw, searched the car and found drugs and several items tying the car to Jones. They also found indicators that Jones lived at 232 Westland Street.

Officers used additional methods to confirm Jones’ residency at 232 Westland Street. During surveillance, officers saw Jones drive and park a Dodge Magnum in the parking lot shared by adjacent three-level apartment buildings. A short time later, officers saw Tyson and Rivera arrive at 232 Westland Street. When Tyson and Rivera left, officers stopped them. Tyson and Rivera consented to a search of the car and officers found crack cocaine. They told the officers they had just obtained the cocaine from Jones. They admitted they often got cocaine from Jones at 232 Westland Street and they told officers Jones had cocaine in the apartment right then.

A short time later, officers saw Jones drive away from 232 Westland Street. The officers stopped him, arrested him and seized $4,000 from his person. The officers found an additional $4,400 in the vehicle. Other officers still watching 232 Westland Street saw a tow truck operator begin to remove the Dodge Magnum. The tow operator told the officers that Jones wanted the car towed to a mechanic. The officers instructed the tow operator to leave the car at 232 Westland Street.

Officers obtained a search warrant for Jones’ apartment. They found crack cocaine, marijuana, paraphernalia and ammunition. An officer went to the parking lot, peered through the tinted windows of the Dodge Magnum and saw a box of ammunition. Knowing that Jones was a convicted felon, the officer conducted a warrantless search of the car. He found cocaine, a digital scale, guns and ammunition.

Jones challenged the search of the Dodge Magnum parked in his apartment parking lot. He claimed that the search wasn’t supported by probable cause, that he held an enhanced expectation of privacy in the car because it was parked in the apartment-building lot, and that there was no exigency preventing the officers from obtaining a warrant prior to the search of the car.

The court held the search was supported by probable cause. An officer who knew that Jones could not lawfully possess guns or ammunition saw a box of ammunition. Even if the officer had not clearly seen the ammunition, there was probable cause based on Tyson and Rivera telling the officers they had just obtained cocaine from Jones, coupled with the officers’ observation of Jones driving the Dodge Magnum and the discovery of drugs and ammunition in Jones’ apartment.

The court quickly dismissed Jones’ argument that there were no exigent circumstances, noting that the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement has no separate exigency requirement. That the officers had secured the area and arrested Jones before searching the Dodge Magnum was irrelevant.

Jones’ assertion that he should enjoy greater privacy protection in a car parked at his home requires a closer examination. Last month, in Collins v. Virginia (138 S.Ct. 1663 (2018)), the Supreme Court held that the automobile exception to the warrant requirement did not apply to a vehicle parked in a private driveway. The automobile exception doesn’t allow “a police officer, uninvited and without a warrant, to enter the curtilage of a home in order to search a vehicle parked therein,” the Court noted. Collins had fled from officers on a motorcycle. Officers went to Collins’ home, walked up the driveway and looked under a tarp, where they found the distinctive orange and black motorcycle. Though the justices sent the case back to state courts for further proceedings, and Collins may yet lose his appeal, the ruling has much more to do with application of the curtilage doctrine than the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.

Unlike Collins’ motorcycle, Jones’ Dodge Magnum wasn’t parked in the driveway of a single-family dwelling and covered by a tarp. Jones shared parking privileges with the residents of two buildings. He had no right to exclude others from the parking lot. Thus, the court concluded, Jones had no greater privacy expectation in the car than if it were parked at the curb. All three of Jones’ arguments fail and the search was valid.

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 three 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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