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Purse search deemed lawful under automobile exception

Laura Brown//May 15, 2023//

4th Amendment newspaper headline on a copy of the US Constitution image

Purse search deemed lawful under automobile exception

Laura Brown//May 15, 2023//

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The Minnesota Supreme Court recently ruled that there was no constitutional violation when police officer searched a woman’s purse inside a car. In State of Minnesota v. Amber Kay Barrow, filed May 3, the court concluded that the search was lawful under the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has held a search of a purse valid under the automobile exception, the Minnesota Supreme Court had not previously considered the application of the automobile exception to the search of a purse.

Barrow was a passenger in a vehicle stopped by law enforcement for lane change violations. After smelling marijuana, the officer asked Barrow and the driver to leave the car. She took her purse with her as she left the car, but an officer told her to place it on the trunk of the car. The officer then placed the purse back into the car.

The car was searched by law enforcement without a warrant. Upon searching the purse, the officer discovered Clonazepam, a controlled substance for which Barrow did not have a prescription. Barrow was convicted of fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance.

Barrow had moved to suppress the evidence from the search of her purse, alleging that the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s search warrant did not apply. Abigail Rankin, assistant public defender, stated, “The automobile exception was not intended to create a sort of carte blanche for government intrusion.”

Elizabeth Bentley, director of the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic at University of Minnesota Law School, represents the ACLU and ACLU of Minnesota, who appeared as amici curiae in the case. Bentley described why the ACLU became involved.

“This case involves the personal privacy and dignity of Minnesotans, and in particular Minnesotans who identify as women or who carry a purse. The court held that the Fourth Amendment does not protect against a warrantless search of a person’s purse that is carried out of a car during a traffic stop, so long as the officers have authority to search the car,” Bentley explained.

While the state argued that the purse was a container within the car when probable cause to search arose, Barrow maintained that her purse was instead an extension of her person. Pointing to the 1996 case State v. Wynne, Barrow argued that a purse on one’s shoulder is included within the concept of one’s person. In that case, the police had a premises warrant that did not authorize the search of a person. When the officers searched her purse, they found illegal drugs. The Minnesota Supreme Court determined that the purse search was unconstitutional.

“Barrow and amici’s definitions of a ‘purse’ would sweep much more broadly than that handbag Barrow was carrying,” the court wrote. Barrow defined a purse as a “bag used to contain personal effects and closely carried, regardless of the gender of its wearer or the style of the bag.” “[M]any bags could be considered ‘purses,’ such as backpacks, fanny packs, briefcases, and duffle bags,” the court explained.

River Thelen,  assistant Stearns County attorney, represented the state. “Because of the transitory nature of automobiles, and the transitory nature of containers within those automobiles, a bright-line rule is necessary here. Otherwise, any exception would be unworkable, and might essentially swallow the exception.”

Barrow also argued that, by allowing searches of worn purses under the automobile exception, gender inequality would be perpetuated since women disproportionately wear purses. But the court was unconvinced given Barrow’s expansive definition of ‘purse.’ “Her argument, therefore, does not eliminate the gender inequality she perceives would exist if ‘purses’ were not treated like one’s person for purposes of the automobile exception,” the court explained.

Although the court found that the search was lawful under the U.S. Constitution, at least two justices indicated that the outcome might have been different if an independent state constitutional claim had been raised.

”A concurrence by Justice [Margaret] Chutich, joined by Justice [Paul] Thissen, explained how the Minnesota Constitution at times offers broader protection than the Fourth Amendment, and the concurrence expressed a hesitancy — as a matter of state constitutional law — to expand the automobile exception to the warrant requirement to these circumstances, especially given the personal nature of a purse,” Bentley said.

“In Minnesota, the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the government from searching a purse that is in a car, so long as they have reasonable suspicion to search the car, even if the person carries their purse with them after exiting the vehicle. It is still an outstanding question whether that same search violates the Minnesota Constitution,” Bentley maintained.

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