In United States v. Sullivan, 2016 WL 4429847 (S.D. Ill. Aug. 22, 2016), the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois considered several exceptions to the warrant requirement in addressing the Defendant Blakely Sullivan’s argument that the district court should suppress the evidence found in his vehicle because the police did not obtain a search warrant or demonstrate probable cause prior to conducting the search. After conducting an evidentiary hearing, the district court denied Sullivan’s motion to suppress, concluding that several exceptions to the warrant requirement applied. The district court made the following factual determinations based upon the evidence presented at the evidentiary hearing.
About 3:45 p.m. on the afternoon of February 5, 2014, Inspector Sneed of the Southern Illinois Enforcement Group (“SEIG”) contacted Illinois State Police Sergeant Jonathan Edwards and told him that SEIG had a confidential source (“CS”) who had been in contact with Sullivan regarding purchasing pseudoephedrine pills. The CS reported that he was currently at Double D’s bar in Benton, Illinois, and was to meet with Sullivan shortly. Upon receiving the information and in an effort to corroborate the CS’s information, Edwards and several other law enforcement officers went to Double D’s to set up surveillance in anticipation of Sullivan’s arrival.
Before the surveillance was completely set up, the CS called one of Edwards’ colleagues to report that he and Sullivan had left Double D’s but would return soon. The CS reported that, in the vehicle that Sullivan was driving, he had observed a clear plastic bag like the kind in which a comforter or bedding would be sold at a department store (a “bedding bag”). According to the CS, the plastic bag contained glass jars, coffee filters, and other items that the CS thought were involved with manufacturing methamphetamine. Edwards’ colleague gave the CS instructions about where to go when he returned to Double D’s. Edwards and his colleagues shared among themselves the information from the CS, discussed Sullivan’s prior drug history, and completed the surveillance set-up in anticipation of Sullivan’s return to Double D’s.
Around 4:30 p.m., Sullivan and the CS returned to Double D’s in a green Toyota Solara. The CS got out and went where law enforcement had instructed the CS to go, and Sullivan drove away. Officers attempted to follow Sullivan but lost track of him. The officers did not seek a warrant at this time because they did not know where Sullivan’s car was.
Edwards and another law enforcement officer picked up the CS and went to a designated meeting area where they talked with the CS in more depth. In that conversation, the CS told the officers that Sullivan had asked him to purchase pseudoephedrine pills for use in manufacturing methamphetamine and that the CS and Sullivan had discussed whether the CS would be able to buy the pills in light of his prior conviction for a methamphetamine offense. The CS also reported that Sullivan had also been interested in whether the CS could obtain anhydrous ammonia which is a catalyst that Sullivan preferred to use when manufacturing methamphetamine. The CS reported to the officers that Sullivan had had a small amount of methamphetamine on his person. The information received from the CS was consistent with other information that the officers had received indicating that Sullivan had numerous people buying pseudoephedrine pills for him to use in manufacturing methamphetamine.
Under Edwards’ and another officer’s supervision and observation, the CS called Sullivan around 5:30 p.m. to tell him that he had come to believe that he would be able to buy pseudoephedrine pills for Sullivan after all, but he needed a ride to the store and also needed money for the purchase. After this conversation with Sullivan, the CS told the officers that Sullivan agreed to meet him at the nearby Huck’s convenience store and to give him a ride to the store. Edwards searched the CS for weapons, cash, and contraband and found nothing. Another officer, then, drove the CS to Huck’s where law enforcement officers had set up surveillance to follow Sullivan and also drove the CS to Wal-Mart where they thought that Sullivan would have the CS buy pseudoephedrine pills. Illinois State Police Master Sergeant David Bartoni joined the surveillance team at this time.
Shortly before 6:00 p.m., Sullivan arrived at Huck’s in the Solara, picked up the CS, and headed toward Wal-Mart. However, before getting to Wal-Mart, Sullivan pulled into the parking lot of a CVS Pharmacy and parked close to the main entrance of the building. The CVS is on the northwest corner of a busy intersection between the Interstate 57 Benton exit and Benton and in a heavily commercial area. The CS got out of the car and entered the CVS. Edwards and another officer followed the CS inside, secured and searched him, and found a $20 bill that the CS said Sullivan had given him to purchase pseudoephedrine. Edwards took the CS out of the CVS and joined other officers in the parking lot.
In the meantime, Master Sergeant Bartoni and another officer approached Sullivan and asked him to get out of his vehicle. They advised him that he was not under arrest but that he was not free to leave and advised him of his Miranda rights. Master Sergeant Bartoni conducted a pat-down search for weapons and felt a long, cylinder-type object in Sullivan’s jacket pocket. Thinking it could have been a weapon, Master Sergeant Bartoni removed the object and found it was a glass smoking pipe of the kind that is used to smoke methamphetamine. Master Sergeant Bartoni asked Sullivan if he had anything else illegal on him, and Sullivan answered that he probably did. Officers continued to search Sullivan’s person and located in Sullivan’s pocket three small containers with methamphetamine residue.
From his position in the parking lot, Master Sergeant Bartoni could see items in Sullivan’s car, including a clear plastic bedding bag containing jars like the bag described by the CS. Thinking that the bag might contain an active, volatile, flammable methamphetamine lab and being concerned for the safety of the public in and around the CVS, Master Sergeant Bartoni had one of the agents of the Meth Response Team (“MRT”), which is comprised of officers trained to deal with methamphetamine-manufacturing hazards, remove the plastic bag from the car and make sure that there was no active methamphetamine cooking going on inside the bag. Officers then asked Sullivan for consent to search the car, and he said they had already found what they would be looking for.
After it was determined there was no active methamphetamine lab in the plastic bag and after Sullivan refused to consent to a search, Edwards applied to the state court for a warrant to search the vehicle. The warrant was obtained around 8:00 p.m., and the MRT then searched the vehicle and seized items necessary to the manufacturing of methamphetamine.
The district court began its analysis by noting that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution provides that the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.” Where evidence is obtained in violation of this guarantee, the exclusionary rule generally requires the evidence to be suppressed at a criminal trial where the utility of the rule in deterring unconstitutional police behavior outweighs its costs. Brock v. United States, 573 F.3d 497, 499-500 (7th Cir. 2009). Generally, “searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment—subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.” Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967). After hearing the evidence, the district court determined that the search that yielded the evidence that was the matter of Sullivan’s motion to suppress fell within the plain view, exigent circumstances, and the automobile exceptions to the warrant requirement.
Under the plain view doctrine, officers may conduct a warrantless seizure of evidence where three conditions are met: “First, the officer may not have violated the Fourth Amendment in arriving at the place from which the evidence could be plainly viewed. Second, the item must have been in plain view, and third, its incriminating character must also be immediately apparent.” United States v. Contreras, 820 F.3d 255, 262 (7th Cir. 2016). The district court found that the plain view exception applied because the CVS where Sullivan parked his car is open to the general public, and so, the police had a right to be there. Because the bedding bag that contained the evidence could be clearly viewed when the police looked inside of Sullivan’s car, the removal of the bag and the jars from the car without a warrant was permitted under the plain view exception to the warrant requirement.
Next, the district court explained that the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement excuses a warrantless search where there is (1) probable cause to believe a crime is being committed and (2) a reasonable belief that exigent circumstances exist. United States v. Venters, 539 F.3d 801, 806 (7th Cir .2008). Probable cause exists “where the known facts and circumstances are sufficient to warrant a man of reasonable prudence in the belief that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found.” Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 696 (1996). Exigent circumstances exist where there is a compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant such as, for example, to protect someone from imminent injury or where lives are threatened. The scope of a search justified by exigent circumstances can only extend so far as to avoid the danger posed by those circumstances.
Agreeing with other courts that have considered the issue, the district court determined that the dangers posed by the volatile nature of a methamphetamine manufacturing lab constituted exigent circumstances that justified a limited warrantless search of Sullivan’s vehicle. Specifically, the district court held that exigent circumstances existed because officers knew active methamphetamine labs were volatile and flammable and that a substantial number of people, including the officers themselves, might be in danger from an active methamphetamine lab if one existed in Sullivan’s car. The car was parked close to the main entrance of the CVS and in the vicinity of other commercial establishments and a major traffic intersection. A methamphetamine lab explosion would pose a public safety hazard to anyone nearby. Accordingly, the district court refused to suppress the evidence against Sullivan because the exigent circumstances exception applied.
Finally, the district court noted that, under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement, police may conduct a warrantless search of an automobile if they have probable cause to believe the vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity. United States v. Edwards, 769 F.3d 509, 514 (7th Cir .2014). The search may extend to “any area of the vehicle in which the evidence might be found.” Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, 347 (2009). In this case, the district court determined that the officers were justified in searching the car, including the bedding bag, under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.
In conclusion, law enforcement officers should be wary of conducting a search without first obtaining a warrant. However, certain exceptions to the warrant requirement do exist, and if the circumstances are right, the exception will apply, and a court will not suppress evidence that has been obtained as a result of a search that occurred without first obtaining a search warrant.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.