In Washington, can an officer search an unlocked unoccupied vehicle in public without a warrant after seeing a zip-lock bag in the glove box?
Yes, the property rule listed in the warrantless exceptions requires that the owner leave the property unsecured in a public place, or takes any other measures to surrender ownership. Abandoned property that is rendered accessible to other members of the public is equally accessible to the police.
STATEMENT OF FACTS
On June 23, 2013 at approximately 3:25 pm, Officer Kemp was on foot patrol in Tacoma, Washington on South Tacoma Way. During his patrol, Officer Kemp noticed Dana Adams’ 1991 red Chevy Camaro parked with its windows down. As Officer Kemp walked past the passenger side of the car, he observed the corner of a zip-lock bag sticking out of the glove box. Officer Kemp knew from his education, training and experience that drug dealers and drug users often used zip-lock type bags to hold illegal drugs. Officer Kemp opened the glove box and found that the bag held a large quantity of a white powdery substance. Using his narcotic field test kit, Officer Kemp identified the contents of the zip-lock bag as cocaine. While Officer Kemp was standing there, Dana returned to her vehicle. As Dana began to enter her vehicle, Officer Kemp arrested her for possession of cocaine. While performing a pat down search of Dana during the course of the arrest, Officer Kemp felt pills in her pocket. Officer Kemp ordered Dana to remove the items from her pocket and identified the pills as Oxycontin. Officer Kemp concluded his investigation and transported Dana to Pierce County jail.
The issue is whether a police officer in Washington can search an unlocked unoccupied vehicle based only on seeing a zip-lock bag. First we will define what the reasonable person standard is. This is a phrase to denote a hypothetical person in society who exercises average care, skill, and judgment in conduct and who serves as a comparative standard for determining liability. Next we will define probable cause as apparent facts discovered through logical inquiry that would lead a reasonable intelligent and prudent person to believe that an accused person has committed a crime. As we discuss this cases these are the two definitions that will affect the Mrs. Adam’s case.
In Michigan v. Thomas, 458 U.S. 259, 102 S.Ct. 3079, 73 L.Ed.2d 750 (1982) a person was arrested for a traffic violation and the vehicle was impounded. During an inventory of the vehicle, incident to the impound, the officer found two bags of marijuana in the glove compartment. A second officer then searched the car based upon the probable cause provided from finding the marijuana during the inventory. A gun was found in an air vent. It is important to note that this warrantless search took place when the police had custody of the vehicle, thus the defendant did not have the means to move the vehicle. In interpreting the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Court of Appeals of Michigan reversed Thomas’ conviction stating that there were no exigent circumstances present to justify the warrantless search since the police had custody of the vehicle. The United