539 So.2d 464 (Fla. 1989), 69363, State v. Wells

Docket Nº:69363.
Citation:539 So.2d 464, 14 Fla. L. Weekly 87
Opinion Judge:Author: Per Curiam
Party Name:STATE of Florida, Petitioner, v. Martin Leslie WELLS, Respondent.
Attorney:Robert A. Butterworth, Attorney General; Joseph N. D'Achille, Jr. and Fleming Lee, Assistant Attorneys General, Daytona Beach, Florida; and Elizabeth Masters and Walter M. Meginniss, Assistant Attorneys General, Tallahassee, Florida, for Petitioner
Case Date:March 02, 1989
Court:Supreme Court of Florida

Page 464

539 So.2d 464 (Fla. 1989)

14 Fla. L. Weekly 87

STATE of Florida, Petitioner,


Martin Leslie WELLS, Respondent.

No. 69363.

Supreme Court of Florida.

March 2, 1989

Page 465

Robert A. Butterworth, Atty. Gen., Joseph N. D'Achille, Jr. and Fleming Lee, Asst. Attys. Gen., Daytona Beach, and Elizabeth Masters and Walter M. Meginniss, Asst. Attys. Gen., Tallahassee, for petitioner.

Sharon W. Ehrenreich of Moore & Ehrenreich, Gainesville, for respondent.

Enoch J. Whitney, General Counsel and R.W. Evans, Asst. Gen. Counsel, Tallahassee, amicus curiae for Dept. of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.


On motion for rehearing by petitioner, we withdraw our prior opinion in this cause and substitute the following as the opinion of the Court.

We have for review Wells v. State, 492 So.2d 1375 (Fla. 5th DCA 1986), based on express and direct conflict with State v. Wargin, 418 So.2d 1261 (Fla. 4th DCA 1982). We have jurisdiction. Art. V, § 3(b)(3), Fla. Const. We approve in part and quash in part the decision of the district court below.

While driving a car loaned by a friend, respondent was stopped by the highway patrol for speeding. The trooper noticed the smell of alcohol upon respondent's breath and arrested him for driving under the influence. At this time, respondent agreed to accompany the trooper to the station to take a breathalyzer test. 1 When respondent asked if he could retrieve a coat from the automobile, the trooper agreed, but accompanied respondent to the vehicle. At this point, the trooper saw an amount of cash lying on the car's floorboard. 492 So.2d at 1375-76.

Page 466

Suspicious of the cash's origin, the trooper asked respondent to open the trunk of the car. Respondent agreed, stating that he did not know what was in the trunk. However, neither respondent nor the trooper were able to manipulate a special locking mechanism that opened the trunk only when the key was pushed in and turned simultaneously. Giving up the effort, the trooper told respondent that the automobile must be impounded and received permission to force the trunk open if necessary and look inside. The trooper did not ask for or receive permission to look in the passenger compartment. Id. at 1376.

The car subsequently was transported to a facility under contract with the state, where a search was conducted. During this search, two marijuana cigarette butts were found in an ashtray. The trooper, assisted by others, opened the trunk with the key and found a locked suitcase inside. Under the direction of the trooper, employees of the facility attempted to pry open the suitcase with a knife. Some ten minutes later they succeeded, and found a garbage bag inside containing a large amount of marijuana. Id.

Respondent was charged with possession of a controlled substance. After his motion to suppress the contraband was denied at trial, respondent pled nolo contendere, but reserved his right to appeal on the suppression issue. The Fifth District later determined that the trial court had erred, and ordered the contraband suppressed. Id. at 1375, 1378. From this order, the state now seeks review.

The facts of this case raise three distinct questions of search and seizure law: the scope of the consent search conducted in this instance, the propriety of opening the locked container found during the automobile inventory search, and the propriety of the impoundment of respondent's vehicle.

The Consent Search

The state urges us to hold that respondent's general consent to open and look into the trunk of the automobile was sufficient to authorize the opening of any locked or closed containers found there. In support of this argument, the state contends that Wargin correctly extended the principles of United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 102 S.Ct. 2157, 72 L.Ed.2d 572 (1982), to the consent-search context. We cannot agree.

Ross clearly stands for the proposition that, so long as probable cause exists to search an automobile, the police lawfully can search any container found inside. Thus, the Ross Court upheld the search of an automobile after the police received a tip from a reliable informant that drugs were being sold from the vehicle, stopped it and found a paper bag and a zippered pouch containing contraband and a large amount of cash. 456 U.S. at 800-01, 102 S.Ct. at 2160-61. Based on these facts, Ross held: "If probable cause justifies the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle, it justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search." Id. at 825, 102 S.Ct. at 2173 (emphasis added).

There was no issue of a consent search in Ross. Indeed, the principles that apply to probable cause searches are totally incongruous to the freedom of choice inherent in consent. As State v. Fuksman, 468 So.2d 1067 (Fla. 3d DCA 1985), and the district court below recognized:

The considerations upon which the holding in Ross is grounded do not exist in the consent search context where there is no probable cause. If a person consents to the search of a vehicle containing luggage and a search of the vehicle alone reveals nothing, the problem of the possible greater intrusion by detention or seizure does not arise because the probable cause necessary to secure the warrant is nonexistent. Therefore, the officer has no dilemma because he has no choice; he must let the consenting party be on his way. It is because the citizen has not given the police probable cause to believe his vehicle contains contraband that he has the right to proceed without official interference. Absent probable cause, the police can engage in the greater intrusion of searching the luggage only under circumstances in which the scope of the consent to search

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is defined clearly enough to include the luggage.

Fuksman, 468 So.2d at 1070. A consensual search by its very definition is circumscribed by the extent of the permission given, as determined by the totality of the circumstances. Id. On the other hand, a probable cause search and its scope are compelled, no matter what might be the wish of the individual. A theory based on consent and one based upon state-sponsored coercion thus are incompatible, and fusing them could lead to absurd results. Under such logic, the search of the trunk of a car would be permitted even if the defendant had said, "You can look in my car but not in my trunk."

Thus, we decline to apply Ross to consent searches, and, to the extent it conflicts with our opinion today, we disapprove Wargin. We cannot agree that the state and its agents, by receiving an ill-defined or limited consent to be searched, suddenly are vested with all the authority conferred by a warrant. Such a holding effectively would vitiate the entire theory upon which the consent search rests.

We also concur with the district court's conclusion that the consent given in this instance did not permit the police to pry open locked luggage with a knife. Respondent's permission merely indicated that the police could look into the automobile trunk. This was an insufficient basis for the police action that followed.

In so holding, we decline to establish a rule that effectively would countenance breaking open a locked or sealed container solely because the police have permission to be in the place where that container is located, as in this instance. This would render the very act of locking or sealing the container meaningless and would utterly ignore a crucial concern underlying fourth amendment jurisprudence: the expectation of privacy reasonably manifested by an individual in his locked...

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