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The Seventh Circuit holds no Fourth Amendment violation in search of a man’s vehicle.

Author: Jim Chapman

 

In United States v. Ostrum, 99 F.4th 999 (7th Cir. 2024), Defendant Dylan Ostrum was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, possession with intent to distribute marijuana, and being a felon in possession of a firearm, all in violation of federal law. Thereafter, Ostrum filed a motion to suppress the evidence against him that law enforcement officers had uncovered as a result of a search of a vehicle. The United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana denied Ostrum’s motion to suppress. After a jury found him guilty on each of the four counts charged and after the District Court sentenced him to 240 months of imprisonment, Ostrum timely filed a notice of appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. The Seventh Circuit stated that the questions on appeal were: whether Ostrum had standing to challenge the search of the stolen car, and if he did, whether that search violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The relevant facts are as follows.


            Law enforcement officers in Indianapolis, Indiana, turned their attention to Ostrum after they executed a search warrant at the Indianapolis home of Ricky Blythe. While investigating Blythe, Indianapolis police officers found numerous text messages between Blythe and Ostrum on Blythe’s phone showing that the two repeatedly sold each other methamphetamine and marijuana. Thereafter, officers learned that Ostrum had felony convictions for burglary and for possession of marijuana and methamphetamine. The officers also became aware of statements from three confidential informants who credibly claimed to have seen Ostrum selling firearms and narcotics out of his home in Indiana. The informants also stated that Ostrum stored several of his firearms at the residence and that he would possess pound quantities of marijuana and methamphetamine at a time at that house.


            In fact, one informant reported to law enforcement that he had delivered several pounds of methamphetamine to Ostrum each week for the past several months. Another informant stated that Ostrum drove a light blue Chrysler 300 sedan, which law enforcement officers observed parked outside of Ostrum’s residence. Further investigation revealed that the Chrysler’s license plates, although registered in Ostrum’s name, did not correspond to the Chrysler.


            Based on this evidence, law enforcement officers obtained a valid warrant to search Ostrum’s residence. The search warrant authorized the search and seizure of firearms, narcotics, and other drug distribution materials. The search warrant also permitted officers to seize keys “relating to safe deposit boxes.”


            However, the officers’ search of Ostrum’s residence revealed little evidence of criminal activity, just some ammunition, a small amount of marijuana, and a keychain. During the search, Ostrum was present and willingly spoke with law enforcement officers. Ostrum identified the seized keys as belonging to a safe, which he emphasized “literally ha[d] nothing inside of it.” He also admitted that he had obtained methamphetamine and a gun from Blythe, that he knew of Blythe’s arrest, and that he was expecting a delivery of drugs from Blythe on the day of his arrest.


            Furthermore, Ostrum denied having guns and drugs at the residence, and he insisted that he “got rid” of them after Blythe’s arrest. Indeed, Ostrum told the officers that his wife had threatened to divorce him if he did not dispose of the guns and drugs. But when officers asked where he had taken the contraband, Ostrum was evasive. Ostrum would only reveal that he had taken “pretty much everything” to his father’s house in Pendleton, Indiana.


            During the search of Ostrum’s residence, the Chrysler was not on the premises, and so, law enforcement agents asked Ostrum where the vehicle was. Unprompted, Ostrum clarified that “everybody always thought that [car] . . . was mine and really I was just renting it.” Ostrum then provided the keys to the car and told the officers that the vehicle was at his father’s house in Pendleton.


            Law enforcement officers found the Chrysler, not at Ostrum’s father’s house in Pendleton, but in a nearby driveway. The home’s occupant gave law enforcement officers consent to enter the property and to conduct a “free air” dog sniff of the vehicle’s exterior. The dog did not alert for the presence of drugs, but a search of the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (“VIN”) revealed that a rental car company had reported the car stolen several months earlier.


            Officers then searched the vehicle and discovered two safes inside. The officers used the keys that they had seized from Ostrum’s residence pursuant to the search warrant to unlock both safes. Inside, the officers found a loaded Glock 9mm pistol and matching ammunition, 513.5 grams of methamphetamine, (approximately) two pounds of marijuana, a digital scale, and what appeared to be a drug ledger.


            After he was charged as noted above, Ostrum moved to suppress the evidence found inside the Chrysler, arguing that the evidence was the fruit of an illegal search. The District Court denied the motion to suppress, finding: (1) Ostrum lacked standing to challenge the search because the car was stolen; (2) the search was valid under the automobile exception because officers had probable cause to believe it contained contraband; and (3) the search was otherwise permissible as an inventory search of a lawfully impounded vehicle.


            On appeal, the Seventh Circuit began its consideration of Ostrum’s arguments by noting that Fourth Amendment’s standing requirement is not jurisdictional but, instead, reflects the idea that a person must have a cognizable Fourth Amendment interest in the place searched before seeking relief for an unconstitutional search. The question is whether a defendant possesses a legitimate expectation of privacy in the premises searched. Ostrum argued that he had distinct expectations of privacy in the stolen Chrysler and in the safes. Therefore, the Seventh Circuit considered each of his asserted interest in turn, recognizing that Ostrum maintained the burden of establishing both a subjectively and objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in each place searched.


            As for the Chrysler, it was stolen. Accordingly, if he stole the car or otherwise knew that the car was stolen, Ostrum would have no reasonable expectation of privacy in it or its contents and, thus, no standing to object to its search. But on appeal, Ostrum denied knowing that the car was stolen, which raised the question: does the unwitting driver of a stolen vehicle stand in the same Fourth Amendment position as a car thief? Despite positing the question, the Seventh Circuit concluded that the court did not need to answer the question because, even if a defendant’s knowledge of the stolen nature of the vehicle had some bearing on his standing to challenge its search, the defendant bears the burden of showing that he had a legitimate expectation of privacy, and Ostrum offered no evidence that he was innocently driving the stolen Chrysler.


            As for the safes, the Seventh Circuit held that Ostrum had no distinct expectation of privacy in the safes because they were found inside a stolen vehicle. While a person lawfully present in a vehicle might be able to assert a privacy interest in a container inside (even without any expectation of privacy in the car itself), a person wrongfully present in a stolen vehicle is differently situated because, according to the Seventh Circuit, a stolen car is not a safehouse that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable. Under the circumstances here, the Seventh Circuit held that the driver of a stolen vehicle lacks standing as to any of its contents whether or not they are enclosed in some sort of a container. Therefore, the Seventh Circuit found that Ostrum could not challenge the officers’ search of the safes.


            Furthermore, the Seventh Circuit held that, even assuming that he had standing to object to the search of the Chrysler, Ostrum’s suppression arguments failed because the officers’ searches of the car and the safes fell squarely within the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. The Seventh Circuit explained that warrantless searches are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, subject to only certain exceptions. One of those is the automobile exception, which allows law enforcement to conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle  so long as there is probable cause to believe it contains contraband or evidence of illegal activity. Authority to search the vehicle extends to all containers inside where there exists probable cause to believe they contain contraband or evidence. In other words, if probable cause justifies the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle, it justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search.


            In the instant case, the Seventh Circuit found that law enforcement officers had ample probable cause to believe that the Chrysler contained contraband. The same evidence that allowed law enforcement to lawfully search Ostrum’s residence for guns and drugs in the first place, coupled with Ostrum’s statements during the search, gave law enforcement probable cause to search the Chrysler. Notably, during the search, Ostrum admitted to getting “rid of” of his guns and drugs and moving “everything,” including the Chrysler and safes included, to his father’s house.


            Ostrum argued that law enforcement had no reason to believe that evidence would be found in the Chrysler as opposed to anywhere else. However, in his statements to officers, Ostrum discussed the car, the safes, and the contraband together, implying that he used the Chrysler to move his belongings. The Seventh Circuit noted that Ostrum’s statement, coupled with his misdirection about the car’s location, gave law enforcement officers good reason to think that the missing car, the missing safes, and the missing contraband would be in the same place.


            As for the safes, the Seventh Circuit opined that what mattered was whether officers had probable cause to believe that guns and drugs were in car. The Seventh Circuit held that they did.


            Finally, Ostrum cited to and relied upon the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Collins v. Virginia, 584 U.S. 586 (2018), arguing that the automobile exception cannot justify the search of the Chrysler because it occurred on the curtilage of a home. But the Seventh Circuit differentiated between “a” home and “Ostrum’s home” because the Supreme Court’s holding in Collins did not categorically prohibit warrantless searches of cars parked on any curtilage. Instead, the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment forbids using the exception to justify an otherwise impermissible trespass. Here, there was no trespass because the officers obtained the homeowner’s written consent to enter the property.


            In sum, the Seventh Circuit held that, under the totality of circumstances, there was ample probable cause to believe that the Chrysler contained contraband. As a result, the searches of the Chrysler and of the safes inside the car fell safely within the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s denial of Ostrum’s motion to suppress.

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