In June, the Supreme Court of Ohio vacated a woman’s drug possession conviction due to an unlawful search by law enforcement.
In its unanimous decision, the Court ruled that while Marion police had the authority to seize the defendant’s bookbag, officers conducted a warrantless search of defendant’s bookbag in violation of her Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.
The incident at issue occurred in January 2019 when four Marion police officers arrived at the home of Kennedy Burroughs to serve an arrest warrant. Ms. Burroughs closed the door on the officers, after which one officer observed the defendant through the window grabbing baggies and exiting the room.
Believing that Ms. Burroughs might be attempting to dispose of drugs, the officer kicked down the door, entered the home, and saw a bookbag on the floor of a bathroom attached to the room where he had located Ms. Burroughs. Though part of a plastic bag could be seen sticking out of the bag, the contents of the bag were not visible.
The officer suspected the bookbag was taken into the bathroom to flush drugs, but believing he needed a search warrant to open the bag, did not open it. Another officer responding to the scene opened the bookbag to search for weapons and found marijuana. Ms. Burroughs was subsequently charged with possession.
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Challenges & Lower Court Rulings
At trial, the Court denied Ms. Burroughs’ request to suppress evidence of the marijuana on grounds that the warrantless search violated her Fourth Amendment rights. The Court held that the warrantless search was permissible as the bookbag was in plain view and the office had probable cause to suspect it contained drugs.
On appeal, the Third District Court of Appeals rejected the trial court’s finding that the “plain view exception” justified seizure of the bag but did not justify a search without a warrant. However, the Court ruled that the search was justified under the “single-purpose” container exception and affirmed the conviction.
Supreme Court Ruling: Search Warrant Requirements
Writing for the Court, Justice R. Patrick DeWine noted that the requirement to obtain a search warrant is the rule “and not the exception” under the Fourth Amendment. He added that law enforcement may conduct a search only when a specific exception to the warrant requirement applies.
The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office took the position that the single-purpose container exception allowed officers in this case to search Ms. Burroughs’ bookbag. The Court explained the origins of the exception – a footnote in a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court case – included observations that some containers (such as a gun case) could not support an expectation of privacy because its content could be inferred from its outward appearance.
The Court went on to explain that the single-purpose exception is extremely narrow and has never been used by the Ohio or U.S. Supreme Courts to justify a warrantless search. The opinion states that when a container’s appearance does not make its contents clear, “a warrant is required. That’s true, no matter how confident an officer is about what he thinks is inside.”
Ms. Burroughs’ conviction was vacated and remanded to the lower court with instructions to suppress evidence found in the bookbag.
Source: Supreme Court of Ohio, State v. Burroughs.