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August 11, 2017

COA: When driver consents to motor vehicle search, that includes a passenger’s backpack

A motor vehicle passenger lacked standing to challenge a search of his own backpack, said the Michigan Court of Appeals in People v Mead, No. 32788. When the driver consents to a search of the vehicle, that includes a container inside the vehicle.  It is irrelevant whether the officer reasonably believes the driver has common authority over the container in order to justify the search.
 
The defendant in Mead was a passenger in a vehicle stopped due to an expired license plate. The defendant was holding a backpack in his lap at the time of the stop. The driver of the vehicle consented to a search of the vehicle and the defendant stepped out of the vehicle, leaving his backpack in the front seat. The officer searched the vehicle, opened the backpack, and found methamphetamine. A jury convicted the defendant of possessing methamphetamine in violation of MCL 333.7403(2)(b)(i). The defendant challenged the conviction, arguing that the evidence should have been suppressed because the search was unreasonable and violated the Fourth Amendment.
 
The Court of Appeals determined that the defendant lacked standing to challenge the search of the backpack and affirmed the defendant’s conviction. It reasoned that the present case was indistinguishable from the Michigan Supreme Court’s order in People v LaBelle, 478 Mich 891 (2007). In LaBelle, the driver of a vehicle consented to a search and the police searched a backpack in the vehicle belonging to the passenger, finding illegal drugs. The passenger moved to suppress evidence and the Court held the search of the backpack was valid, and because the stop of the vehicle was legal, the passenger lacked standing to challenge the search. The Court reasoned that the driver’s authority to consent to a search of the entire passenger compartment of the vehicle included any unlocked containers located inside. The Court of Appeals in Mead was bound by this holding.
 
Additionally, the Court of Appeals explained that whether the officer reasonably believed that the driver had common authority over the backpack was inconsequential in determining whether the driver’s consent justified the search. Although courts in other states have applied a common authority analysis to evaluate warrantless searches of containers in vehicles made pursuant to consent, that approach is not binding in Michigan. Therefore, the defendant lacked standing to challenge the search as unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction.

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