Second Circuit allows warrantless search of unhitched trailer under automobile exception to Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement

In United States v. Navas, 09-1144-cr, the Second Circuit reversed the district court’s finding that the warrantless search of a trailer – which was unhitched from its cab and parked in a warehouse – was prohibited by the Fourth Amendment.

After being tipped off by a confidential informant and obtaining a warrant to track the location of Navas’s cell phone, agents discovered the phone approaching the Bronx and set up surveillance at the Hunts Point Terminal Market. At that point, Navas was seen unloading a tractor trailer with another defendant. The two then drove the tractor trailer to a private warehouse, where they detached the trailer and drove away, leaving the trailer locked inside. They then proceeded to a McDonald’s where they met with several other individuals and were all arrested.

Agents transported everyone back to the warehouse, and, during a pat-down of one of the defendants, found a garage door opener. While that individual claimed the opener was for his home, one of the agents testified that it opened the door to the warehouse when the agent “inadvertently” touched it.

When agents entered the warehouse, they “examined the top of the trailer and observed physical indicia of a secret compartment. The agents then “ripped off the sheet metal roof” of the trailer, discovered 230 kilograms of cocaine, and promptly seized the contraband.

The district court held that the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement,“generally relates to some type of vehicle that is capable of moving on its own,” and “[a] stationary trailer, detached from a tractor cab with its legs dropped, and stored inside a warehouse, is not a vehicle that is readily mobile or in use for transportation.” As such, the district court granted defendants’ suppression motion.

The Second Circuit began its analysis by recognizing that the automobile exception permits law enforcement to conduct a warrantless search of a readily mobile vehicle where there is probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband. See, Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938, 940 (1996). That exception is based on two rationales: the inherent mobility of a vehicle and the diminished expectation of privacy in their contents. See, e.g., California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 391 (1985); see also United States v. Howard, 489 F.3d 484, 492 (2d Cir. 2007).

The Second Circuit concluded that the trailer was “readily mobile” because “[w]hether a vehicle is ‘readily mobile’ within the meaning of the automobile exception has more to do with the inherent mobility of the vehicle than with the potential for the vehicle to be moved from the jurisdiction, thereby precluding a search.” Citing Howard, 489 F.3d at 493. The Court also found the reduced-privacy rationale to apply “forcefully,” in part because of the myriad state and federal regulations on such trailers.