STATE v. CHUMELL WILLIAMS, SC 19103
Judicial District of Waterbury
Criminal; Search and Seizure; Whether, Under the Connecticut Constitution, the Automobile Exception to the Warrant Requirement Should be Limited to Preclude Search of a Closed Container. While conducting surveillance of a high crime area in Waterbury, three police officers witnessed the driver of a parked car, later identified as the defendant, hand a small item to an individual standing next to the vehicle. Believing that they had witnessed a drug transaction, the officers arrested the defendant. One of the officers searched the vehicle and found narcotics in the vehicle’s center console and on the floor. The officer also found a dark plastic bag behind one of the back seats. He opened the bag and discovered that it contained narcotics and a handgun. As a result, the defendant was charged with narcotics and firearm offenses. The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized by the police, claiming that the warrantless search of the vehicle violated his constitutional rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, and the defendant entered a nolo contendere plea to the charges, conditioned on his right to appeal the ruling on his motion to suppress. On appeal, the defendant challenges only the search of the dark plastic bag and the admission of its contents into evidence. Pursuant to the automobile exception to the warrant requirement of the fourth amendment to the United States constitution, the police can search a vehicle without a warrant, including any closed containers within the vehicle, if they have probable cause to believe the search will result in the discovery of evidence or contraband. See United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982). The defendant contends that the automobile exception to the warrant requirement should be more narrowly construed under article first, § 7, of the Connecticut constitution, which he claims provides greater protection against unreasonable searches and seizures than its federal counterpart. Specifically, he claims that, under the state constitution, the automobile exception should be limited to preclude the police, in the absence of exigent circumstances, from searching a closed container without first obtaining a warrant. In support of his position, the defendant argues, among other things, that the modern concept of the automobile as an extension of the home or office gives rise to a reasonable expectation in maintaining the privacy of containers inside automobiles.