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Court Rules Closed Containers Cannot Be Searched Without a Warrant

This case involves an appeal from convictions of possession of marijuana. The defendant challenges that the trial court’s failure to suppress the marijuana. The other defendant challenges the sufficiency of evidence in the case.

Case Background

A New York Criminal Lawyer said the local police officer was monitoring a parking lot during a rock concert. He saw three men leave the building about half way through the concert and get into a car. He saw the two men in the front seat start to fumble around on the floorboard for about a minute and then saw what looked like a cigarette being lit and passed around the vehicle. He suspected that the cigarette was likely marijuana so he called for backup.

While waiting for the backup unit to arrive the officer saw one of the men get out of the car and open the trunk and place a brown paper bag inside. The officer thought that the bag may contain marijuana and feared that the men were about to leave. He approached the vehicle and ordered the men to keep their hands in plain view.

The officer did not see any marijuana in the car, but detected the odor of burning marijuana coming from the front passenger side window. A Bronx Criminal Lawyer said this odor gave the officer probable cause to search the car.

The officer asked the driver of the car for the keys and opened up the trunk. He saw a brown bag that appeared to have nine baggies of marijuana inside as well as two un-smoked joints. Another officer had arrived on the scene at this time and the two officers arrested the three men.

Two of the defendants were charged with possession of more than 20 grams of marijuana. Both defendants filed motions to suppress the marijuana. The court found that only one of the defendants had the standing to be able to challenge the legality of the search of the car. The motion to suppress was eventually denied to both defendants.

One of the defendants was found guilty of possessing more than 20 grams of marijuana. The other defendant was found guilty of possession of less than 20 grams. The defendants were sentenced to one year in the county jail, with the defendant being charged of possessing over 20 grams of contraband also receiving three years’ probation upon his release.

Case Discussion and Decision

The defendants argue that the search of the vehicle was not legal. The owner of the vehicle had the right to an expectation of privacy concerning the trunk of his car.

The defendant does not argue the fact that the officers had probable cause to search the vehicle. However, he contends that the officer should not have opened the brown paper bag without a warrant.
In this aspect he is correct. A New York Sex Crimes Lawyer said vehicles can be searched by officers based on probable cause without a warrant being executed. However, any closed containers that are found in the car cannot be opened without a search warrant.

For this reason, we are reversing the guilty verdict of the defendant for more than 20 grams of marijuana. The case will be remitted to the trial court for a possession charge that will match the charge against the other defendant.

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