Houghton v. State, 96-99

Decision Date03 April 1998
Docket NumberNo. 96-99,96-99
Citation956 P.2d 363
PartiesSandra HOUGHTON, Appellant (Defendant), v. The STATE of Wyoming, Appellee (Plaintiff).
CourtWyoming Supreme Court

Sylvia L. Hackl, State Public Defender; Donna Domonkos, Appellate Counsel; Michael Dinnerstein, Director, Wyoming Defender Aid Program; T. Alan Elrod and Scott J. Olheiser, Student Interns, for Appellant (Defendant).

William U. Hill, Attorney General; Paul S. Rehurek, Deputy Attorney General; D. Michael Pauling, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Georgia L. Tibbetts, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Theodore E. Lauer, Director, Prosecution Assistance Program; and Sandra Boudreaux, Student Intern, for Appellee (Plaintiff).


TAYLOR, Chief Justice.

Appellant's arrest and conviction on one count of felony possession of a controlled substance was based upon evidence found in her purse during a warrantless search of an automobile in which she was a passenger. On appeal, appellant raises several challenges to her conviction, including the district court's denial of her motion to suppress the evidence found in her purse. We hold that the search of appellant's purse exceeded the reasonable scope of the search of the car, violating her Fourth Amendment rights.

Reversed and remanded.


Although appellant, Sandra Houghton (Houghton), identifies four issues on appeal, the dispositive issue is:

Did the trial court err in denying the Appellant's Motion to Suppress Physical Evidence?

The State of Wyoming, as appellee, phrases the issue as follows:

Did the district court err in denying appellant's pretrial motion to suppress the methamphetamine seized by law enforcement officers during a warrantless search of David Young's automobile?


In the early morning hours of July 23, 1995, a Wyoming Highway Patrol Officer stopped an automobile for speeding and a faulty brake light. There were three occupants in the car--the driver, David Young (Young); his girlfriend; and Houghton. Shortly after the stop, the officer was joined by two other law enforcement officers. While the officer was questioning Young, he noticed a syringe in Young's shirt pocket. The officer told Young he was going to get gloves out of the patrol car and would return to question Young about the syringe. While the officer went to his car, another officer kept an eye on the occupants.

Upon his return, the officer ordered Young to step out of the car and to place the syringe on the hood. When the officer asked what the syringe was for, Young responded that he used the syringe to take drugs.

At that point, the passengers were ordered out of the vehicle and were asked for identification. Houghton, identifying herself as Sandra Jones, stated she did not have identification. All occupants were then "[patted] * * * down, to see if there were any weapons or anything." 1 After the pat down yielded no weapons or contraband, the officer searched the car for drugs.

While searching behind the area where the two female passengers had been seated, the officer found a closed "cloth lady's purse." He opened the purse and removed a wallet. Searching the wallet, the officer found Houghton's driver's license. The officer then told Houghton to approach the driver's side of the vehicle, where she stated that the purse was hers. Without further comment, the officer continued his search, removing a brown "wallet bag" containing drug paraphernalia, a syringe containing an estimated 60 cc's of liquid, a black wallet containing drug paraphernalia, a vial, and a syringe with approximately 10 cc's of liquid. After a field test of a small amount of the liquid from the syringe in the brown bag tested positive for methamphetamine, the officer took custody of the two containers, returned the purse to the car, and arrested Houghton for possession of a controlled substance. Young and his girlfriend were released.

Prior to trial, Houghton moved to suppress the evidence found in her purse, asserting there was no probable cause to search her belongings. Following a hearing, the district judge issued a decision letter which denied Houghton's motion to suppress the contents of her purse. Relying on California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565, 580, 111 S.Ct. 1982, 1991, 114 L.Ed.2d 619 (1991), the district judge found that the officer had probable cause to search the car for contraband and, therefore, any containers within the car which could hold the contraband were subject to search.

A jury found Houghton guilty of one count of felony possession of a controlled substance. After Houghton unsuccessfully moved for acquittal or a new trial, she was sentenced to not less than two nor more than three years at the Wyoming Women's Center. This timely appeal followed.


On a motion to suppress evidence, the moving party must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that her rights were violated. Guerra v. State, 897 P.2d 447, 452 (Wyo.1995) (quoting Malcolm v. United States, 332 A.2d 917, 918 (D.C.App.1975)). The constitutional touchstone of a search and/or seizure is whether the search unreasonably violated a justifiable expectation of privacy. Saldana v. State, 846 P.2d 604, 610-11 (Wyo.1993). "Whether a search is reasonable is to be determined from the facts and circumstances of the case in light of the 'fundamental criteria' that are found in the Fourth Amendment * * *." Id. at 611. We defer to the district court's findings of fact regarding the circumstances attending the search and seizure and review those findings "pursuant to an abuse of discretion-clearly erroneous standard * * *." Hall v. State, 911 P.2d 1364, 1367 (Wyo.1996). However, whether a search and seizure is unreasonable, thereby violating constitutional protections, is ultimately a question of law which warrants de novo review. Id.


The issue before us is whether the personal belongings of a passenger may be searched under the "automobile exception" when probable cause exists to search the automobile, but there is no probable cause to believe the passenger is involved in criminal activity. Houghton does not contest the probable cause to conduct the search of Young's car for drugs, but asserts that in the absence of probable cause to believe she possessed contraband, the search of her purse violated her justifiable expectation of privacy in her personal belongings. The State counters that the officers had no duty to determine probable cause as to each container within the car, and consequently, the permissible scope of the search included the search of all containers, including a passenger's purse.

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides citizens "[t]he right * * * to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures * * *." 2 General seizures are prohibited; all searches must be supported by probable cause to believe evidence of a crime will be found.

"The requirement that warrants shall particularly describe the things to be seized makes general searches under them impossible and prevents the seizure of one thing under a warrant describing another. As to what is to be taken, nothing is left to the discretion of the officer executing the warrant."

Hall, 911 P.2d at 1369 (quoting Marron v. United States, 275 U.S. 192, 196, 48 S.Ct. 74, 76, 72 L.Ed. 231 (1927)).

The scope of a search is defined by the probable cause upon which that search is predicated, not whether the search is conducted pursuant to a warrant or pursuant to a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. The Supreme Court of the United States has unequivocally held that "[t]he scope of a warrantless search based on probable cause is no narrower--and no broader--than the scope of a search authorized by a warrant supported by probable cause." United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 823, 102 S.Ct. 2157, 2172, 72 L.Ed.2d 572 (1982) (quoted in Hunter v. State, 704 P.2d 713, 717 (Wyo.1985), detailing the line of cases leading to the holding in Ross ). Neither is the permissible scope of the search dependent on the place being searched, but on the object of the search.

A warrant to search a vehicle would support a search of every part of the vehicle that might contain the object of the search. When a legitimate search is under way, and when its purpose and its limits have been precisely defined, nice distinctions between closets, drawers, and containers, in the case of a home, or between glove compartments, upholstered seats, trunks, wrapped packages, in the case of a vehicle, must give way to the interest in the prompt and efficient completion of the task at hand.

Ross, 456 U.S. at 821, 102 S.Ct. at 2171 (emphasis added). See also Acevedo, 500 U.S. at 580, 111 S.Ct. at 1991.

Thus, as Ross and Acevedo make clear, the permissible scope of the warrantless search of Young's car under the automobile exception is identical to a search conducted pursuant to a warrant. The problem in this case is that while Houghton's purse could physically contain the object of the search, there was no probable cause to believe that contraband would be found in her personal belongings. Therefore, the question is, if a warrant had issued on the basis that Young held drugs in his car, whether the search of the personal effects of a passenger or guest would be within the scope of the warrant.

The United States Supreme Court has not addressed the permissibility of searching a guest's or passenger's belongings, but has considered the search of a guest's person. Ybarra v. Illinois, 444 U.S. 85, 100 S.Ct. 338, 62 L.Ed.2d 238 (1979). In Ybarra, a search was conducted pursuant to a warrant to search the premises of the Aurora Tap Tavern and the person of the bartender, "Greg," based on probable cause that Greg was dealing drugs while at work. During the search, the officers conducted a pat down search of a...

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