The Supreme Court of Ohio today vacated a Marion County woman’s drug possession conviction, finding police illegally searched a bookbag with a baggie sticking out from the zipper.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled Marion police had the authority to seize Kennedy Burroughs’ bookbag from her bathroom floor, but needed a warrant to search it. The Court reversed a Third District Court of Appeals decision allowing the bookbag search under a rare “single-purpose container exception” to the requirement for a search warrant.
Writing for the Court, Justice R. Patrick DeWine explained that for the single-purpose container exception to apply, the container by nature of its outward appearance must make the illegal nature of its contents clear.
“The single-purpose container exception, as the name makes clear, applies to single-purpose containers. A bookbag is not a single-purpose drug container,” he wrote.
Warrantless Search Leads to Bookbag In January 2019, Marion police officer Chris Coburn and two other officers arrived at Burroughs’ home to arrest her for obstruction of justice. When Burroughs came to the door, Coburn told her he had a warrant for her arrest, and she shut and locked the door, imploring the officer to give her a second. Coburn refused and threatened to kick down the door. Coburn walked over to a window and observed Burroughs grabbing baggies off a table and heading to the back of the house.
Fearing that Burroughs was attempting to get rid of drugs contained in the baggies, he kicked in the door and rushed into the house. He found Burroughs and a teenager in a bedroom. Marijuana cigarette-butts and residue were on a plate beside the bed. On the floor of an attached bathroom was a closed bookbag with part of a plastic baggie caught in the zipper. The contents of the items in the baggie were not visible from the portion sticking out of the zipper.
Coburn suspected Burroughs had taken the bookbag into the bathroom to flush drugs. But believing he needed a search warrant to open the bookbag, he did not open it.
Burroughs was arrested, and the teenager was directed to leave. Another police officer, Lieutenant Mark Elliot, arrived on the scene. He testified that he opened the bookbag to search for weapons and found marijuana inside. Burroughs was charged with illegal possession of drugs.
Constitutionality of Search Challenged Burroughs asked the trial court to suppress the evidence of the drugs, arguing that the warrantless search of her bookbag violated the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. The trial court denied Burroughs’ request, finding the police could conduct a warrantless search because the bag was in plain view and Elliot had probable cause to suspect it contained contraband.
Burroughs pleaded no contest to marijuana possession and appealed the decision to the Third District Court of Appeals. The Third District rejected the trial court’s reasoning, finding that the “plain view exception” justified seizing the bookbag, but did not allow for the bag’s search. However, the appeals court ruled the search was justified based on the single-purpose container exception to the warrant requirement. The Third District affirmed her conviction, and she appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear her case.
Supreme Court Examines Warrant Requirement Burroughs did not argue that the officers’ seizure of her bookbag was unlawful, but instead that the officers needed to obtain a search warrant before opening it. Justice DeWine explained that it is the rule, “not the exception,” under the Fourth Amendment that police must obtain a warrant to conduct a search. Only when a specific exception to the warrant requirement applies, he noted, may police conduct a search without a warrant.
The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office argued the single-purpose container exception allowed for the bookbag search without a warrant. The opinion explained that the exception could be traced back to a footnote in a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court case. The U.S. Supreme Court observed that some containers, “for example, a kit of burglar tools or a gun case” by their very nature cannot support an expectation of privacy because the content can be inferred from their outward appearance, the opinion stated.
Today, the Supreme Court of Ohio explained that police can seize obviously illegal items left in plain view. However, the plain view exception only allows the police to seize a closed container, but still requires a warrant to open it, the Court said. A single-purpose container can only be opened without a warrant if the “distinctive configuration of the container proclaims its contents,” the Court ruled.
The opinion noted the exception is “particularly narrow,” and that neither the Ohio nor the U.S. Supreme Court has ever used the single-purpose container exception to authorize a warrantless search.
The prosecutor argued that the single-purpose container exception should consider the totality of the circumstances, including all of the evidence that was available to the investigating officer. The opinion stated that approach would make warrantless searches the rule, not the exception, allowing officers to conduct warrantless searches on “indistinct and innocuous containers.”
“A broad exception of this sort could not easily exist alongside the long-held principle that no amount of probable cause can justify a warrantless search or seizure absent exigent circumstances,” the Court stated.
When the container does not by its nature make its contents clear, “a warrant is required. That’s true, no matter how confident an officer is about what he thinks is inside,” the opinion stated.
The Court vacated Burroughs’ conviction and remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to suppress the evidence found in the bookbag.
2020-1304. State v. Burroughs, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-2146.
View oral argument video of this case.
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