What Constitutes Consent for Search of a Vehicle – State v. Wantland

By Reddin & Singer

The U.S. Constitution and the Wisconsin Constitution protect Wisconsin citizens from unlawful searches and seizures. This means police officers need probable cause to believe you are committing a criminal act before they can search your person, house, or property. Property encompasses large items like one’s car but also includes smaller personal belongings, such as a purse or a wallet. If you or someone you know was subject to what seems like an unlawful search or seizure by law enforcement, we can help. At Reddin & Singer, we have helped a number of clients determine if the search and seizure was on valid grounds.

In State v. Wantland, the court determined that a police officer’s search of a passenger’s briefcase was reasonable during an automobile search carried out with the driver’s consent.

The facts of the case are as follows. The defendant was a passenger in a vehicle that was stopped by a deputy sheriff. The defendant’s brother was driving the vehicle. When the officer asked the driver if he could search the vehicle, the driver consented without putting any limitations on the search. In other words, the driver did not say any part of the vehicle was off limits. The officer searched the main area of the vehicle before proceeding to the back of the hatchback.

In the back of the car, the officer found a briefcase. The officer asked what was inside the briefcase. The defendant replied “a laptop” and then asked “got a warrant for that?” The officer said he could open it and did so. The officer found a few items inside the briefcase, including morphine pills.

The defendant was arrested and later charged with possession of a narcotic drug. The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence. The defendant claimed that by asking if the officer had a warrant for the briefcase, he (the defendant) had established ownership of the briefcase and thus had withdrawn the driver’s consent. The circuit court denied the motion. The defendant appealed. The court of appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court reasoned that the defendant did not effectively withdraw consent merely by asking if the officer had a warrant. Additionally, the police officer had no obligation to clarify what the defendant meant, considering the officer already had permission to search the entire car. The court noted that once a search is underway, officers do not have to “halt their search and question whether consent is still valid every time a person makes an ambiguous statement regarding the ownership of an item that is otherwise within the scope of that consent…”

The cases raises an interesting question about what ordinary passengers can do to stop police officers from searching the passenger’s property when it is in an automobile being searched with the driver’s consent.

Individuals accused of crimes may be convicted due to evidence illegally found by police officers. If you or someone you know thinks your Fourth Amendment rights were violated, it is important to seek the help of a qualified Milwaukee criminal defense attorney who can assess the facts of your case. At Reddin & Singer, we have years of experience challenging evidence collected through illegal searches and seizures. To learn more, contact us online or call us at (414) 271-6400.