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Never give a police officer permission to search your vehicle or home!
United States v. Cotton (2013)
United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals
In February 2011, Marvin Cotton was driving his rental car along Interstate 10 in east Texas when, without changing lanes or slowing his speed as required by Texas law, he passed Lieutenant Tony Viator’s emergency vehicle parked on the side of the road. Having already received a tip from a fellow officer that Cotton might be carrying drugs, Viator conducted a stop and a lengthy detention, running license checks with dispatch and questioning separately both Cotton and his passenger about their itinerary and their reasons for travel. Viator’s suspicion grew when inconsistencies in Cottons’s and his passenger’s stories emerged, so he sought Cotton’s consent to search the rental car for drugs. An audio recording from the camera on Viator’s vehicle captured Viator’s solicitation of Cotton’s permission to search everything in the car. Though Viator first requested permission, he twice more asked whether he could search the car. The parties disputed Cotton’s response to Viator’s initial request, but as to the two reiterated requests, Cotton indisputably responded by limiting his consent to a search of his luggage only. Nevertheless, Viator meticulously searched the entire vehicle, ultimately discovering a small, plastic-wrapped bundle containing crack cocaine concealed in the vehicle door’s inner cavity. Cotton then made incriminating statements while trying to work out a deal with the officers. He filed a motion in the District Court to suppress the drugs and the statements. The motion was denied, and Cotton pleaded guilty to one count of possession with intent to distribute more than 280 grams of cocaine and was sentenced to 121 months in prison. He appealed the District Court’s denial of his motion to suppress, having reserved the right to do so in his plea agreement.
The Fifth Circuit reversed the denial of Cotton’s motion to suppress, and vacated his conviction and sentence. The Court concluded that Cotton had limited his consent to the search of his luggage only. Consequently, Viator’s prolonged and more extensive search of Cotton’s entire vehicle violated his Fourth Amendment right, and the drugs uncovered during the unauthorized search of the vehicle, and the incriminating statements made shortly thereafter should have been suppressed as fruits of the unlawful search.