Taken together, these facts established a “fair probability” that the car would contain evidence of drug trafficking. That the deputies thought they lacked probable cause is irrelevant; the analysis is objective.
United States v. Haworth
22 – 1050
Sixth Circuit Appellate Court
October 13, 2022
In August 2020, an employee of the Lansing Comfort Inn found a baggie of suspected methamphetamine in a hotel room and called 911.
At this Comfort Inn, located at 525 North Canal Road in Lansing, Michigan, Mr. Korey Haworth was found with his three children in his car. His car also had a scale, methamphetamine and a firearm. The deputies did not believe they had probable cause to search the car but the Sixth Circuit Appellate Court did – what would you have done?
She reported that Mr. Korey Haworth had stayed in that room for the past three days and had just checked out. She also said he looked “kind of out of it.” Shortly thereafter, Deputy C.J. Cunningham of the Eaton County Sheriff’s Department arrived to find Mr. Haworth and his three children in a parked car. Mr. Haworth who was holding two phones and sweating profusely-provided a false name and denied being on probation for any prior drug offenses. Cunningham promptly accessed a database that showed Mr. Haworth had recently been released on probation for a prior drug offense. Cunningham then arrested him for obstruction.
After the arrest, Dep. Cunningham went to speak with the hotel staff. Meanwhile, Deputy John Davidson arrived at the scene and waited outside the car with Mr. Haworth’s children. The eldest, a six-year-old boy, said that his dad had “left his scale.” Davidson saw a digital scale in plain view on the passenger seat, and asked what it was for; the boy said his dad hid it from them and used it for “secret stuff.” Dep. Davidson relayed this information to Dep. Cunningham, and the two officers considered whether they had probable cause to search the vehicle. They worried they might not and chose to impound the car and perform an inventory search instead. That search revealed multiple bags of drugs and a loaded pistol.
Denial of Motion to Suppress and Guilty Plea
The government thereafter charged Mr. Haworth with possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute. Mr. Haworth moved to suppress the evidence found during the search. The district court held an evidentiary hearing at which Dep. Davidson testified. There, it ruled that the search was lawful under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement and denied Mr. Haworth’s motion.
Mr. Haworth then pled guilty, reserving the right to file this appeal. Mr. Haworth argues only that the search of his vehicle was unlawful because the officers lacked a warrant.
As an initial matter, we agree with Mr. Haworth that the exception for inventory searches does not apply. Officers may not conduct an inventory search “for purposes of investigation” – as the officers likely did here. United States v. Snoddy, 976 F.3d 630, 634 (6th Cir. 2020).
What does apply here, however, is the automobile exception. Under that exception, officers may “[S]earch a vehicle without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime.” Taylor v. City of Saginaw, 922 F.3d 328, 334 (6th Cir. 2019)
Here, Mr. Haworth himself concedes that hotel staff had found what appeared to be methamphetamine in his room; that he was holding two phones when the police arrived; that he lied to Dep. Cunningham about his name; and that his car contained a digital scale. Digital scales are familiar “tools of the [drug] trade,”; and Mr. Haworth’s son gave the officers reason to believe that this one was indeed used for drugs. The officers also knew that Mr. Haworth had lied to them about having recently been convicted of another meth-related charge. Taken together, these facts established a “fair probability” that the car would contain evidence of drug trafficking. That the deputies thought they lacked probable cause is irrelevant; the analysis is objective. District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S.Ct. 577, 586 (2018).
The search was therefore lawful under the automobile exception.
Information for this case was obtained from United States v. Hayworth, No. 22 – 1050.
This case was issued by the Sixth Circuit Appellate Court and is binding in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.
- There are two significant legal takeaways from this case. The first is that the deputies incorrectly believed that the baggie of methamphetamine discovered by the hotel employee after Mr. Haworth checked out combined with the digital scale for his ‘secret stuff’, did not amount to probable cause. Here, the deputies had a subjective belief that the information and evidence did not rise to probable cause. However, the Doctrine of Objectively Reasonable, is based on an ‘objectively’ analysis … not subjective. Consequently, the Sixth Circuit Appellate Court determined that there was enough probable cause to search Mr. Haworth’s vehicle. Keep in mind that if the deputies had incorrectly believed they had probable cause [though not the case herein] and did not, then the search would have been unlawful. Because it is not what law enforcement subjectively believes, rather what is Objectively Reasonable.
- The second takeaway is that law enforcement may not use an inventory as a ruse to conduct a search of a motor vehicle. The U.S. Supreme Court made this conclusion in Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1 (1990) “Our view that standardized criteria, or established routine, must regulate the opening of containers found during inventory searches is based on the principle that an inventory search must not be a ruse for a general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence.”. Id at 4. In this case there may have been some discussion between the deputies to forego the probable cause search with the specific intent to actually search the vehicle through the inventory policy. Law enforcement must be cautious of utilizing this methodology to search motor vehicles.
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