Legal Memorandum: Exceptions to Warrantless Searches

Issue: Does a digital camera found in a vehicle constitute a container such that the police would have probable cause to search it incident to an arrest for speeding, resisting arrest and/or drug possession?

Area of Law: Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Litigation & Procedure
Keywords: Probable cause; Warrantless searches; Search incident to lawful arrest
Jurisdiction: Florida
Cited Cases: 398 F.3d 1143; 453 U.S. 454
Cited Statutes: None
Date: 05/01/2007

The general rule is that warrantless searches are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, subject to a few recognized exceptions.  Florida courts recognize at least three well‑known exceptions that may be applicable here: (1) search incident to lawful arrest; (2) an inventory search; and (3) search under the automobile exception.

United States v. Gonzalez, 71 F.3d 819, 825 (11th Cir. 1996).

Under the first exception, a search incident to a lawful arrest, the permissible search is not limited to the defendant’s person but, if, as here, he is the occupant of a vehicle, it extends to the passenger compartment of the vehicle, and includes any open or closed containers found in the area of the automobile.

New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 460 (1981).

United States v. Diaz‑Lizaraza, 981 F.2d 1216, 1222 (11th Cir.1993).

“Containers,” as used in this context, refer to any object capable of holding another object. 

Belton, 453 U.S. at 460, n.4.

Gonzalez, 71 F.3d at 826.

No Florida state or federal cases (or cases outside Florida for that matter) were found that specifically address whether a digital camera may be considered a “container” for purposes of search and seizure law.  However, there is authority from jurisdictions outside Florida that digital devices, computers, cell phones, pagers and similar technology should be considered like “closed containers” for this purpose.

United States v. Barth, 26 F. Supp. 2d 929, 936‑37 (W.D. […]

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