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Idaho Supreme Court Announces Whether a Container Is Located Inside or Outside Vehicle When Probable Cause Arises Determines if Container May Be Searched Under Automobile Exception, Joining Conclusion of Several Other States

by Anthony W. Accurso

In a case of first impression, the Supreme Court of Idaho held that the automobile exception to the warrant requirement applies only to containers located inside the vehicle at the time probable cause arises to search containers thereunder.

Diasha Lynn Maloney was pulled-over in Twin Falls, Idaho, on May 6, 2018, due to an expired vehicle registration tag. The officer who initiated the traffic stop was aware that the license plate of the vehicle had been reported to police several times in connection with marijuana use at a nearby park. Additionally, he was aware that Maloney’s ex-husband, who also used the vehicle in question, was currently in jail for possession of meth. The second officer on scene advised the first officer that the passenger had an outstanding warrant for a traffic violation. At that point, the first officer asked Maloney for her consent to search the vehicle. Maloney consented and exited the vehicle with her purse prior to the start of the search.

A search of the vehicle resulted in the first officer finding a “one-hitter” pipe used for marijuana. The pipe was found in a bag that contained a wallet and other items belonging to Maloney’s ex-husband. The officer claimed that he decided not to charge Maloney with possession based on the pipe because “there was a high probability that” it belonged to her ex-husband.

However, he told her that because he discovered the pipe in the vehicle, he was authorized to search her purse. She refused to give consent, but the officer searched it anyway. During the search, the officer found two more pipes and a small quantity of a crystalline substance believed to be meth. He then arrested Maloney for possession of meth.

Maloney filed a motion to suppress all evidence found in her purse, arguing that the meth was discovered as a result of a warrantless search and that no recognized exception applied because her purse was not located in the vehicle when the “one-hitter” was found. Maloney argued that she consented to the search of the vehicle, but that consent didn’t extend to her purse because she removed it prior to the start of the vehicle search. She further argued that finding the “one-hitter” didn’t establish probable cause to search her purse because the officer believed it belonged to her ex-husband.

The State countered by arguing the automobile exception to the warrant requirement permitted the search of her purse despite the fact it was removed from the vehicle prior to the discovery of the “one-hitter,” which triggered the right to search containers located within the vehicle under the automobile exception.

The trial court denied her motion, and Maloney entered a conditional guilty plea, reserving her right to appeal the denial of her suppression motion.

The Court began its analysis by reiterating the familiar rule that a warrantless search is presumptively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. State v. Wolfe, 445 P.3d 147 (Idaho 2019). The State has the burden of establishing that a warrantless search falls within a “well-recognized exception.” State v. Weaver, 900 P.2d 196 (Idaho 1995). The recognized exception at issue in the current case is the “automobile exception,” which authorizes police to conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle when there’s probable cause to believe it contains contraband or evidence of a crime. State v. Anderson, 302 P.3d 328 (Idaho 2012).

The automobile exception “justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search.” United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982). The Idaho Supreme Court has instructed that “police cannot create a right to search a container by placing it within the passenger compartment of a car or by ordering someone else to place it there for them.” State v. Holland, 15 P.3d 1167 (Idaho 2000).  

The Court noted that neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor the Idaho Supreme Court has addressed the precise legal question at issue in the present case, viz., “whether the automobile exception applies to allow search of containers removed from a vehicle before probable cause develops.”

However, the Court noted that other states have addressed this issue and have concluded that where the container in question is located at the moment probable cause arises is dispositive of whether the automobile exception applies to the container. See Sossamon v. State, 576 S.W.3d 520 (Ark. Ct. App. 2019); State v. Funkhouser, 782 A.2d 387 (Md. 2001); cf. State v. Groshong, 135 P.3d 1186 (Kan. 2006); Hawley v. State, 913 So. 2d 98 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2005). The reasoning of these opinions is based largely on Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295 (1999), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held “police officers with probable cause to search a car may inspect passengers’ belongings found in the car that are capable of concealing the object of the search.” (emphasis supplied) See also Sossamon (collecting U.S. Supreme Court cases containing language focusing on whether the automobile exception applies to containers inside the vehicle).

The Court announced that in determining whether the automobile exception applies to a particular container, “the location of the container at the point at which probable cause arises is the critical determination.” This conclusion is supported by both U.S. Supreme Court case law, see United States v. Johns, 469 U.S. 478 (1985); Ross, as well as Idaho case law, see Gallegos; Holland; Newsom, the Court stated. The Court articulated the rule as follows: “unless probable cause to search a vehicle has developed before a container is removed from the vehicle, an officer may not rely on the automobile exception to search that container.”

Turning to the present case, probable cause arose to search the vehicle and all containers within it that could reasonably contain evidence of drug possession at the moment the officer found the “one-hitter” pipe. Prior to that moment, the search being conducted was based upon Maloney’s consent. Once the pipe was discovered, the automobile exception was triggered and covered all containers located within the vehicle at that moment, the Court explained.

But based on the rule defining the scope of the automobile exception just announced by the Court, probable cause to search containers inside the vehicle did not extend to Maloney’s purse located outside the vehicle at the time the “one-hitter” was discovered and thereby triggering the automobile exception, according to the Court. Thus, the Court held that the automobile exception didn’t apply to the search of the purse and that the district court erred in denying the motion to suppress.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the denial of the motion and the judgment vacated. See: State v. Maloney, 489 P.3d 847 (Idaho 2021). 

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Related legal cases

State v. Maloney

Sossamon v. State

cf. State v. Groshong

Hawley v. State

State v. Funkhouser

United States v. Johns



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