United States v. Caldwell, 2021 WL 3356951 (4th Cir. 2021)
No matter what story he told, the evening of Dec. 9, 2016, ended poorly for Anthony Caldwell. According to his accomplices, Caldwell recruited Michael Cole and Rahshie Mitchell, both minors at the time, to help him rob a Wells Fargo. Cole and Mitchell, each armed with a revolver, took nearly $5,800 in cash at gunpoint from the bank tellers, then ran to the waiting getaway car, driven by Caldwell. Two GPS tracking devices were hidden in the stolen cash.
Police officers tracked the GPS signal until the device appeared to stop moving at an address within a couple miles of the bank. When the officers exited their patrol car, one officer heard rustling in the woods. As he looked toward the noise, the officer saw three persons running away. Rather than charge into the dark woods, the officers called for a police service dog and a helicopter. The K-9 unit, helicopter and other officers quickly arrived. The K-9 handler gave an announcement that a police service dog was being released. As the court observed, “the police presence was not subtle: between their flashlights, the blue lights and spotlights on their cars, the helicopter above, and the sounds of communications between the officers on site and over the radio, it would have been clear to anyone in the area that the police were there and were engaged in a manhunt.”
Caldwell was hidden amid vines and weeds along a fence. One officer walked right past Caldwell, not seeing him. Nonetheless, the police service dog quickly found Caldwell and bit him on the arm. Caldwell was laying on top of a black bag containing nearly all the missing cash and one of the GPS trackers. Cole and Mitchell managed to escape.
Caldwell claimed that men, later identified by DNA evidence as Cole and Mitchell, carjacked him while he sat in a Chevrolet Impala near the bank. Caldwell testified that Cole and Mitchell “had pistol-whipped him several times and forced him to flee with them; that he passed out from being hit in the head; and that he only woke up when the police dog bit him.”
The officers found the Impala nearby. They saw a black jacket, a North Carolina license plate, and a black revolver on the back seat. Nearby, the officers found a black hooded sweatshirt and glove along the fence, as well as a ski mask on the ground next to the Impala. They also found “two loose $20 bills of U.S. currency, a cash wrapper that would go around a stack of bills, and the other GPS tracker” at the house where the GPS signal became stationary.
The officers towed the Impala to a police facility and obtained a search warrant. During the search, the officers found a “large black jacket, the black Rohm revolver, a black ski mask…and black gloves” in the passenger compartment. The officers did not open and search the trunk at that point because the car battery was dead, rendering the trunk-opening mechanism inoperable.
Nearly two weeks later, after the Impala had been taken to an impound lot, officers jump-started the car’s battery and opened the trunk. They found a silver revolver, black gloves and a black skullcap.
The search need not occur contemporaneously with the seizure
Caldwell asked the court to suppress all the evidence found in his Impala. He claimed the officers violated procedural rules in obtaining the search warrant and that too much time had passed between the initial search and the search of the trunk. The trial court denied the motion. After Caldwell was convicted by a jury, he appealed the denial of his motion to suppress the evidence.
The appellate court held that the automobile exception justified both searches of the Impala. Thus, even if the warrant might be subject to attack for a technical error, the initial search was proper. Moreover, the search of the trunk was also proper because the vehicle was still capable of movement and there was probable cause to believe the trunk contained evidence.
An officer may search a vehicle without a warrant if there is probable cause to believe it contains evidence or contraband. The officer may search anywhere a warrant could have authorized a search. The courts have adhered to the automobile exception for years; when it was first allowed, the Ford Model T was still in production (Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925)). This exception is based both on the lesser expectation of privacy in a vehicle traveling public roads and the ready mobility of a vehicle (Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128 (1978)).
The search need not occur contemporaneously with the seizure: “Not a single published federal case speaks of a ‘temporal limit’ to the automobile exception. The Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that a warrantless search of a car need not occur contemporaneously with the car’s lawful seizure and need not be justified by the existence of exigent circumstances that might have made it impractical to secure a warrant prior to the search” (United States v. Gastiaburo, 16 F.3d 582 (4th Cir.), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 829 (1994)). In one case, a warrantless search was upheld when it occurred two months after a car had been impounded (United States v. Casares-Cardenas, 14 F.3d 1283 (8th Cir.), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 849 (1994)).
The court cited several facts that supported probable cause to search the Impala:
- The officers found the Impala at the location where the GPS trackers stopped moving.
- An officer saw three people running into the woods.
- Despite the significant commotion and large police presence, Caldwell (who claimed to be asleep) did not call out to the police.
- Caldwell was on top of a bag containing a GPS tracker and $5,614 of the $5,791 that had been stolen.
- The Impala had an invalid temporary license plate, with a permanent license plate in plain view on the back seat.
- Officers found a black hooded sweatshirt, a glove, loose currency, a cash wrapper, and a second GPS tracker and ski mask on the ground near the Impala.
- The officers saw a revolver and black jacket in plain view on the back seat. The clothing and revolver matched the general description of that used by the robbers.
- Caldwell claimed he had been carjacked in the Impala by the persons who very likely committed the bank robbery.
Caldwell raised other challenges related to Cole and Mitchell and alleged conflicts of interest with their attorneys. Nonetheless, the court gave as much credence to those claims as the jury gave to Caldwell’s fairy tale explanation of why he was fast asleep in the woods, on top of a bag of cash and had to be awakened by the bite of a police dog.
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