June 26, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Exigent Circumstances Justified Warrantless Search of Suspect’s Mouth

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Carr on Thursday, November 17, 2016.

Vehicle—Probable Cause—Non-Consensual Search—Mouth—Unlawful Drugs—Evidence—Suppression—Fourth Amendment.

A police surveillance team identified the vehicle Carr was riding in as possibly being involved in drug sales. Officers observed the vehicle speeding and weaving into another lane and pulled it over. The officer who approached the driver’s side of the vehicle smelled alcohol and marijuana. The officers noticed that Carr was making chewing motions with his jaw and had a golf-ball sized bulge in his cheek. He refused the officers’ commands to spit out the contents of his mouth. The officers forced open Carr’s mouth and removed ten bags of drugs, which later tested positive for cocaine. Carr was charged with various crimes. He moved to suppress all evidence resulting from the search of his mouth. The court denied his motion, and he was ultimately convicted.

On appeal, Carr argued that the nonconsensual search of his mouth violated the Fourth Amendment and the court thus erred in failing to suppress the evidence obtained during that search. In addition to probable cause for the arrest of a suspect, which was not at issue in this case, the Fourth Amendment requires the state to prove three factors to render a warrantless internal body search constitutional: (1) a clear indication that incriminating evidence will be found; (2) exigent circumstances that justify the intrusion and make it impractical to obtain a search warrant; and (3) extraction of the evidence in a reasonable manner and by a reasonable method. Here, there was a clear indication that evidence would be found because the officers believed that Carr was in a vehicle that was suspected to be involved in drug dealing; they saw a large bulge in his mouth; he refused to speak to the officers or reveal what was in his mouth and was trying to chew or swallow what was in his mouth; and the officers had experience or training that indicated that suspects would attempt to swallow drugs. Exigent circumstance justified the search because Carr was attempting to chew and swallow, and it was imperative for the officers to retrieve whatever was in Carr’s mouth to preserve evidence and keep Carr from harming himself. Finally, extraction of the evidence was reasonable. Although the officers used physical force to search Carr’s mouth, they did not force him to undergo any invasive medical procedure or apply force to his throat. The minimal risk to Carr’s health and safety and the intrusion on his privacy and dignity did not outweigh the community’s interest in retrieving the bags of drugs. Therefore, the search of Carr’s mouth did not violate his Fourth Amendment rights.

The judgment of conviction was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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