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Hidden Compartment in Motor Vehicle Can Provide Probable Cause for Search

Brian Batterton

United States v. Concepcion-Ledesma, 447 F.3d 1307 (10th Cir. 2006)

Just the Facts…

On May 16, 2006 the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, in the above case, held that the presence of a hidden compartment in vehicle, taken with the totality of the circumstances, provides probable cause for a warrantless search. In this case, a Kansas State Trooper observed a group of three vehicles traveling close together in the slow lane on I-70. One of the vehicles had Michigan plates. Another, a black Chevy van, had no visible license plate or registration. The Trooper testified that he did not see any license plate on the vehicle. Because Kansas law requires license plates to appear “in a place and position to be clearly visible,” the Trooper conducted a traffic stop. As he approached the car on foot, he could see a temporary registration in the rear window. However, due to the “extremely dark” tinting of the rear window, the tag was hard to read, even at a distance of four to five feet. The Trooper testified that he could not tell what state issued the registration.

The Trooper met with the driver of the car, Maria Concepcion-Ledesma, and her passenger, Lena Beydoun. He asked Ms. Concepcion-Ledesma for her license, registration, and insurance information, and informed her that the vehicle’s tag was unreadable and not visible. The Trooper then asked the women about their travel plans and they replied that they were driving from Detroit to Los Angeles for a vacation of one or two weeks. Additionally, they were unable to provide a name of a person or place they were going to reside in Los Angeles, they carried only two small bags in the vehicle and they denied traveling with any other vehicles. The Trooper believed the denial suspicious because he had observed the three vehicles traveling close together, and because at least one of the other vehicles had Michigan plates, both women had Michigan driver’s licenses, and they indicated that they were traveling from Detroit. Throughout the conversation, both women appeared extremely nervous, not making eye contact and having “shaky” voices.

The Trooper completed a warning citation for the obscured tag, told Ms. Concepcion-Ledesma that she was receiving a warning and then said “Thank you girls. You have a safe one. Ma’am you wouldn’t have anything, uh, weapons, or any type of illegal stuff in the back?” The women said that they did not and the Trooper then asked “Could we look, could we take a minute to look back there? Just your bag and stuff.”

Another Trooper arrived and they opened the back doors of the van. They saw two small duffel bags and also observed that the side walls and panels appeared to have been taken off or tampered with. The screws that hold the panels in also appeared scarred. The Troopers further observed that the carpet and panels did not match up and appeared offset as if there were a hidden compartment. One of the Troopers removed a manufactured cup holder and the foam under it. He discovered pseudoephedrine tablets. A further search revealed 330 pounds of pseudoephedrine. Ms. Concepcion-Ledesma was charged with possession of pseudoephedrine with reason to believe it would be used to manufacture methamphetamine.

What could possibly be wrong with this case…

Ms. Concepcion-Ledesma appealed the admission of the evidence citing three issues. First, she contends the Trooper exceeded the permissible scope of the traffic stop. Second, she states that she did not voluntarily consent to any search of her vehicle. Lastly, she contends that she only consented to a limited search of her vehicle rather than a search of the walls and panels.

Does the Court agree….

As to the first issue, the Court points to a specific Kansas traffic law statute that requires a tag to be “in a place and position to be clearly visible.” Here, the tag was behind a very darkly tinted window that rendered the tag unreadable. The court held that, while the Michigan temporary tag was displayed along the guidelines provided by the State of Michigan, this was still a reasonable detention because the tag appeared to be displayed in violation of Kansas law. The Court stated that officers are not required to possess an “encyclopedic knowledge” of traffic law from other states. As such it was reasonable for the Trooper to issue a warning, verify Ms. Concepcion-Ledesma’s license and registration information and ask preliminary questions about travel plans.

Next, the Court considered the issue of whether Ms. Concepcion-Ledesam’s consent was voluntary. The United States Supreme Court has stated that officers do not need to expressly advise a person that they are “free to go” before requesting consent to search. Here, the Trooper advised Ms. Concepcion-Ledesma and her passenger two statements that indicated they were free to go. The statements were “Thank you girls” and “have a safe one.” The Court reasoned that these statements signaled the end of the official encounter and therefore, any additional discussion was consensual. The Court also considered whether the consent was given voluntarily which is a question to be answered from the totality of the circumstances. Factors that the Court considers are the tone of voice the officer used, compelling statements on the part of the officers, multiple officers, prolong retention of identification documents or personal items, and absence of other members of the public. In this case, the officer used a pleasant, ordinary tone of voice, the subject was free to leave, there was only one officer present when consent was requested and the encounter took place in public. Thus, the Court held that the consent was voluntary.

Lastly, Ms. Concepcion-Ledesma contends that she only consented to a limited search of the bags in the van rather than a search of panels and walls of the van. The Court held that the initial limited consent to search bags and the general open area of the van got the Troopers lawfully inside the van. Once inside the van, the Troopers observed the aforementioned facts that indicated the presence of a hidden compartment. The Court stated that they consider two factors when determining whether a hidden compartment provides probable cause for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle. First, they consider the likelihood that there really is a hidden compartment. Second, they consider the likelihood that the hidden compartment is secreting contraband. The 10th Circuit then stated that this second factor is “not a concern” because, if the vehicle contains a hidden compartment, it is highly likely to contain contraband; further, the court stated there is little legitimate use for a hidden compartment. Here, the Court applied the above rule and stated

Because the evidence was highly probative of the existence of a secret compartment, and because it is difficult to imagine a licit purpose for a large hidden compartment in a vehicle the size of a Chevy van, these signs of a hidden compartment strongly suggest — and perhaps even single-handedly establish — probable cause to search behind the side panels in the rear of the van.

In conclusion, the Court found that there was “easily probable cause” to search the van. They did consider some other factors in this case in solidifying their probable cause determination. First, they stated the small amount of luggage was implausible considering the statement that the purpose of the trip was a two week stay in Los Angeles. Second, the denial of traveling with other vehicles was suspicious in light of what the Trooper had observed. Lastly, the extreme nervousness was also considered in determining probable cause.

21 U.S.C. § 841©(2)

K.S.A. § 8-133

United States v. Concepcion-Ledesma, 447 F.3d 1307, 1313 (10th Cir. 2006)

Ohio v. Robinette, 519 U.S. 33 (1996)

Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973)

United States v. Hill, 199 F.3d 1143 (10th Cir. 1999)

United States v. Jurado-Vallego, 380 F.3d. 1235 (10th Cir. 2004)

Id. at 1238.

United States v. Concepcion-Ledesma, 447 F.3d 1307, 1318 (10th Cir. 2006)


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