If The Motel Room is Searched, Can the Parked Car Be Searched?

One of the tools readily available to law enforcement is a search warrant. A warrant typically follows days, weeks, or months of surveillance of a particular target. The investigation could be focusing on narcotics, weapons, human trafficking, or any other number of criminal activities. After the gathering of evidence through surveillance, the case agent will submit an application for a warrant to a judge. If the judge finds probable cause within the four corners of the document, a warrant will issue. Of course, following the issuance of the warrant, the home, residence, vehicle, computer, etc. will be searched.

With regards to a piece of real property (home, rental, motel, hotel, etc.), the warrant will typically include permission to search the “curtilage” of the property and all items within the curtilage. In determining whether parts of the property constitute “Curtilage” courts typically look to four factors:

  1. the proximity of the area claimed to be curtilage to the home
  2. whether the area is included within an enclosure surrounding the home
  3. the nature of the uses to which the area is put, and
  4. the steps taken by the resident to protect the area from observation by people passing by.

United States v. Dunn, 480 U.S. 294 at 301 (1987).

Essentially, curtilage is an area so intimately tied to the home itself that it should be placed under the home’s ‘umbrella’ of Fourth Amendment protection.” Id. “[T]he primary focus is whether the area in question harbors those intimate activities associated with domestic life and the privacies of the home.” Id. at 301 n.4. 

What About a Car Parked In Front of a Motel Room?

Now to answer the questions presented: the short answer is no, a car parked in front of a motel room cannot be searched as part of the curtilage of the property. Shannon v. State, 43 Fla. Law Weekly D1704a (Fla. 2d DCA 2018).

In Shannon, “the trial court concluded that Shannon’s car had been parked in the curtilage of rooms 120, 121, and 124. The court found that the car was parked three feet in front of room 120 and that when Shannon exited room 124, it took him about two-and-a-half seconds to get to his car in front of room 120. However, the proximity of the car to the rooms is only one factor set forth in Dunn. Consideration of the other Dunn factors leads to the conclusion that the parking space in front of 120 did not constitute the curtilage of the three motel rooms identified in the warrants. There was no indication that the parking space was enclosed, thus suggesting that it was accessible to anybody walking around the motel. There was no indication that the occupants of the rooms took any steps to protect the parking space from observation of people passing by or that the parking space was used for other purposes by the occupant of the rooms. The parking space was used by Shannon at the time in question, but there was no indication that it could not have been used by anybody else visiting the motel.”

A such, the narcotics that were found in the vehicle subsequent to the illegal search and seizure of Shannon and his vehicle were suppressed from introduction into evidence and Shannon’s conviction was overturned. 

Can I Get a Withhold of Adjudication?

If, for whatever reason, you are unsuccessful in getting your charges dismissed either before or after trial, the next best thing is to receive a withhold of adjudication on your conviction. A “withhold” is one of those quirks of the law that both is and is not a conviction. A “withhold” allows a person to deny having been convicted and leaves open the possibility of sealing and expunging the arrest. Nonetheless, it’ll be on your record.

How do we get a withhold?

The most common method to get one is through negotiations with the Office of the State Attorney. Generally speaking, first-time offenders who have committed relatively minor crimes are eligible with some exceptions, most notably DUIs.

Persons convicted of capital, life, punishable by life, or first-degree felonies will not be eligible to receive a withhold of adjudication. A person convicted of a second-degree felony is only eligible if requested by the State Attorney or the Court makes certain findings. A person convicted of a third-degree felony will be eligible unless they’ve received two prior withholds. A person convicted of a third-degree felony crime of domestic violence or who has received one prior withhold may be eligible if requested by the State Attorney or the Court makes certain findings. Fla. Stat. 775.08435.

Can it be taken away from me?

The short answer is “yes.” In order to receive a withhold of adjudication, Florida law requires that you be placed on probation. There’s no specified length of probation but, generally speaking, you must earn your withhold. If you violate probation, the Court can, and most likely will, adjudicate you guilty of the crime.

If the court screwed up and unlawfully gave you a withhold when it wasn’t supposed to give such a sentence, it will not be taken away from you if the State failed to object at sentencing. The courts have held that such error is not “fundamental” and, as such, will not overturn such a sentence unless the State objected contemporaneously at the sentencing. State v. Rivera, 43 Fla. L. Weekly D1537c (Fla. 5th DCA 2018).

 

That Admission Might Not Be Used Against You

The Corpus Delecti Rule

Florida is one of a few jurisdictions where the “corpus delecti” rule still applies to the benefit of criminal defendants. In a nutshell, “The rule provides that before an admission may be allowed into evidence, the State has the burden of offering direct or circumstantial evidence independent of the admission that establishes the corpus delicti of the crime charged.” State v. Allen, 335 So. 2d 823, 825 (Fla. 1976). The corpus delecti is substantial evidence tending to show the commission of the charged crime. This standard does not require the proof to be uncontradicted or overwhelming, but it must at least show the existence of each element of the crime.

As Applied to Juvenile Possession of a Firearm

The Second DCA has applied this rule to a juvenile’s possession of a firearm. Essentially, it is illegal for a juvenile to simply possess a firearm, with a few exceptions, and entirely illegal for a person under 24-years-old to possess a firearm if they have been previously adjudicated delinquent to a charge that would have been a felony if charged as an adult. An element of either charge is actual possession of the firearm.

In A.P. v. State, 43 Fla. L. Weekly D1508a (Fla. 2d DCA 2018), the defendant was charged with such possession. However, the weapon was found on the floor of a car that was jointly occupied by A.P. and at least one other individual. As such, it was your classic constructive possession scenario. The State failed to produce any evidence of possession by any of the individuals such as fingerprints, DNA, or statements by a co-defendant. However, A.P. did admit to ownership of the firearm.

The Court (Hillsborough Judge Twine Thomas) allowed the admission into evidence. The Second DCA indicated that this was in error:

“The evidence here showed that A.P. and two passengers were together in the car, and A.P. was driving. The gun was hidden from sight under the floor mat of the front passenger seat. We have repeatedly held that mere proximity to contraband in a jointly occupied car is not sufficient to sustain a conviction based on constructive possession. See K.A.K, 885 So. 2d at 407-08. Thus, the only independent proof remaining to support any of the inferences necessary to establish constructive possession is A.P.’s admission. This brings us full circle to Ras, which, as stated above, teaches us that this will not do. See Ras, 610 So. 2d at 25; see also Harrison v. State, 483 So. 2d 757, 758 (Fla. 2d DCA 1986) (holding that the corpus delicti doctrine prohibited the appellant’s conviction for possession of a firearm where there was no proof of actual or constructive possession of the firearm apart from the appellant’s confession).”

As such, while it is certainly best to simply abide by the law and, should you fail there, to not say anything without an attorney present, it is possible to avoid a conviction by properly excluding from evidence an admission using the corpus delecti rule to your advantage.

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