[W]e conclude that law enforcement was authorized to search the bookbag under the single-purpose container exception.

State v. Burroughs

2020 – Ohio – 4417

Third District Appellate Court

Marion, Ohio

September 14, 2020

On Sunday January 27, 2019 Marion Police Officer Chris Coburn and two other officers went to 200 Patten Street in Marion, Ohio to serve a misdemeanor warrant for Obstruction on a Ms. Kennedy Burroughs.  The address of the arrest warrant was 200 Patten Street.

Ms. Kennedy Burroughs lived here at 200 Patten Street in Marion, Ohio.  Soon after Officer Coburn arrives she began her marijuana sprint at the front door.

Upon arrival Ms. Burroughs answered the door. As Officer Coburn explained that she had a warrant, Ms. Burroughs immediately slammed the door shut, locked it, grabbed several plastic baggies and ran to the back of the house.  Officer Coburn observed Ms. Burroughs actions through the window of the front door.  Officer Coburn did not see or know what was in the plastic baggies.  At this moment, Officer Coburn kicked open the front door, ran inside and found Ms. Burroughs, holding a cell phone in the back bedroom.  There was also an unrelated female teenager in the bedroom.  Officer Coburn suspected that Ms. Burroughs flushed the plastic baggies, so he inspected the bathroom which was next to the bedroom.  Next to the toilet was a bookbag that was incompletely zipped and either a baggie or baggies were protruding.  Next to the bag around the toilet was marijuana shake and roaches.

Officer Coburn arrested Ms. Burroughs and placed her in the Marion Police Cruiser outside and detained the female juvenile in the living room.  A short time later Lt. Mark Elliott arrived.  Lt. Elliott smelled marijuana in the house and observed marijuana shake throughout the house.  Officer Coburn directed him to the restroom where the lieutenant observed the bookbag with baggies protruding from the zipper portion.  Like Officer Coburn he observed only a portion of the baggie protruding from the bookbag and neither officer could determine what was inside the baggies.  Lt. Elliott opened the bookbag to determine if there was weapon inside.  There was no weapon, but the baggies were filled with marijuana.  An extended search of the home discovered marijuana edibles next to the bed.

Ms. Burroughs was indicted for one count of Possession of Marijuana, 2925.11(A), (C)(3).  She filed a Motion to Suppress which was denied by the trial court as it held that Marion Police had probable cause to open the bookbag.  Ms. Burroughs, plead no contest, was found guilty and filed an appeal to the Third District Appellate Court. The Third District Appellate Court upheld Ms. Burroughs conviction but did not uphold the search of the bookbag on probable cause.  Instead the court applied a seldom-used exception to the Fourth Amendment titled Single Purpose Container.  This doctrine is an extension of the Plain View Doctrine.  The first three prongs of the Plain View Doctrine must first be met 1) The officer must be legally on the premises from where the observation is made; 2) Officer must not violate the Fourth Amendment to make the observation; and 3) The incriminating nature of the object must be immediately apparent. Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128 (1990). If all three of these elements are met the Single Purpose Container doctrine may possibly apply.

What is the Single Purpose Container doctrine?

A single-purpose container is a container that “[B]y [its] very nature cannot support any reasonable expectation of privacy because [its] contents can be inferred from [its] outward appearance. … when a container is not closed, or transparent, or when its distinctive configuration proclaims its contents, the container supports no reasonable expectation of privacy and the contents can be said to be in plain view.  If an object is in a closed container, the object is not in plain view and the container may not be opened unless the packing gives away the contents.  When a container has been legally seized, and its contents are a foregone conclusion, we hold that a subsequent search of the container is lawful under the plain view container doctrine.” [internal quotation marks omitted].  Based on this analysis the Third District Appellate Court held “[W]e conclude that law enforcement was authorized to search the bookbag under the single-purpose container exception.”. Id at 22.

In the end Ms. Kennedy Burroughs was not able to outrun her warrant, Officer Coburn or a seldom used exception to the Fourth Amendment.

Information for this article was obtained from State. v. Burroughs, 2020 – Ohio – 4417 and a phone interview with Lt. Mark Elliot on March 25, 2021.

Lessons Learned:

  1. The Single Purpose Container exception is seldom used because the circumstances leading up to its’ utilization are highly infrequent. However, on this day, Sunday January 27, 2019, Ms. Burroughs plastic baggie marijuana sprint inside 200 Patten Street provided the right set of circumstances.  The doctrine was originally created on April 19, 1983 in Texas v. Brown, 460 U.S. 730, 735-736 (1983).  In that case Fort Worth Police Officer Tom Maples stopped Mr. Clifford James Brown at a checkpoint.  As Officer Maples approached his car and observed Mr. Brown grab a green balloon from his pocket and drop it on the seat next to him.  The balloon was knotted about one half inch from the tip.  Brown then reached across the passenger seat and opened the glove compartment.  Officer Maples, based on his training and experience recognized the balloon as a container for heroin.  The balloon was seized the contents contained heroin.  Mr. Brown appealed his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court which held “[T]he balloon could be one of those rare single-purpose containers which by their very nature cannot support any reasonable expectation of privacy because their contents can be inferred from their outward appearance.”.  Id at 751.  [internal quotation marks omitted.]
  1. Before law enforcement can utilize the Single Purpose Container the first three elements of the Plain View Doctrine must be met: 1) The officer must be legally on the premises from where the observation is made; 2) Officer must not violate the Fourth Amendment to make the observation; and 3) The incriminating nature of the object must be immediately apparent. Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128 (1990). Then the container ‘single purpose’ would only be to contain contraband. Other cases that had containers that have been determined to be single purpose containers:

Five packages heavily wrapped in cellophane that contained … cocaine!  United States v. Williams, 41 F.3d 192 (4th Cir. 1994).

A firearms case that contained a … firearm!  United States v. Banks, 514 F.3d 769, 774 – 775 (8th Cir. 2008).

An ammunition can that contained … hand grenades.  United States v. Meada, 408 F. 3d 14, 19, 24 (1st Cir. 2005)

A clear plastic bag partially wrapped in masking tape which fell out of luggage and when it landed white powder spilled out of the puncture hole. United States v. Miller, 769 F2d 554, 560 (9th Cir. 1985).

  1. Both Officer Coburn and Lt. Elliott should be commended for their decisions in the moment. Officer Coburn knew he could force entry on an arrest warrant if the address he was at was listed on the warrant, he knocked and announced and was refused entry.  In this case, Ms. Burroughs created conditions that was textbook conditions for Officer Coburn’s forced entry.  When Lt. Elliott observed the baggie or baggies protruding from the bookbag he knew that it was a Single Purpose Container.  This analysis was based on the totality of the circumstances beginning with Ms. Burroughs plastic baggie marijuana sprint, pungent marijuana odor in the home, marijuana shake on the floor and a hastily closed bookbag with plastic baggies playing peek-a-boo.

Does your agency train on the Single Purpose Container Doctrine?

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and Objectively Reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.