Friday, April 5, 2013

Unauthorized envelope search comes up empty for motorist

The police officer pulled over a motorist and he got nosy. The motorist began acting suspiciously when the officer stopped her, and the officer asked if he could look in her car. She allowed him to search the car, and in doing so, the officer found an envelope and decided to open it. Then she filed a lawsuit.

The case is Winfield v. Trottier, decided on March 6. The district court said the search exceeded the scope of plaintiff's authorization. The officer asked her, "There's nothing in there I should know about is there? No guns or money?" The plaintiff replied, "You can look if you want." At this point, the officer was barely able to contain himself: "Oh you don't mind? Do you mind? No large sums of money in there or -- no? Okay." The driver said the officer could look inside the car.

You're probably wondering what was in the envelope. There was a court document addressed to plaintiff's husband. It pertained to his arrest for "possession" and a letter that he had written to the judge. I am not sure where the damages are in this case, but plaintiff says her rights were violated because the officer read the letter in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

You don't have to worry about the damages. The Court of Appeals (Jacobs, Pooler and Hall) does say that the officer exceeded the scope of the search in reading the envelope. While the officer was not just looking for contraband, "Winfield's consent did not arguably extend to Trottier's reading her mail. He did not, for example, get specific consent to search for evidence of extortion by mail or securities fraud," the Court says, partially tongue-in-cheek. (The Court plays it cute throughout the decision). Indeed, the Fourth Amendment protects the right to be secure in your papers. "Reading a person's personal mail is a far greater intrusion than a search for contraband because it can invade a person's thoughts." The officer should not have read the letter.

But, at the time of this malicious and outrageous rights violation, it was not clearly established that the officer could not do this. Here is how the Court phrases the qualified immunity issue:

The right at issue is properly stated as follows: It is a Fourth Amendment violation when a police officer reads a suspect’s private papers, the text of which is not in plain view, while conducting a search authorized solely by the suspect’s generalized consent to search the area in which the papers are found. No prior case in the Second Circuit has so held.
So while the officer violated her rights, no prior case said that this intrusion was unconstitutional. So the officer is immune from liability.

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