We’ve all been there before. You’re investigating a suspected crime, and to help control the scene you place a suspect in the back of your patrol car. The thug is a tough guy at the scene and isn’t admitting anything. However, for liability protection your department has outfitted your patrol car with audio and video recording equipment. In addition to the forward facing camera for stops and contacts, the system also has a camera recording the prisoner transport compartment. What part of those conversations, if any, can we use against them in court?
On January 5th, 2015, the United States 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decided United States v. Webster, which answers that very question. Do suspects have a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding conversations in the caged area of a patrol vehicle? This case is a great review of Miranda requirements, in-custody v. voluntary statements, spontaneous utterances, and the admissibility of suspect statements when being detained.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The BlueSheepDog Staff provide Federal Court rulings as a means of educating officers on legal issues that have great impact on the manner of performing police duties, so officers can better perform those duties within legal boundaries. Though this is a U.S. 7th Circuit (Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) ruling, the decision of one Federal Appeals Court weighs heavily in the decision-making of other Federal Courts. The BlueSheepDog Staff are not attorneys, and we do not claim this information as legal advice in any manner or form. This article is presented for informational purposes only. BlueSheepDog recommends officers contact to their local prosecutors, legal advisors and department policies for specific compliance questions.
Detainee Statements Inside a Patrol Car
On March 11, 2011, South Bend, Indiana police officers responded to a residence after receiving an anonymous tip of illegal drug activity. As the officers were approaching the house they heard a door shut on the side of the house. The officers went to that side of the house and located Webster exiting the house. At the same time two other persons fled from the house as the officers approached. Webster had a strong odor of marijuana on his person, and the officers noted an odor of marijuana emanating from the house. The officers searched Webster based on the probable cause from the marijuana odor and located $2,296 in cash on his person.
The South Bend officers detained Webster approximately two and a half hours in the prisoner compartment of a patrol car as the officers obtained and executed a search warrant. While this was taking place an officer was in the car with Webster most of the time. At some point the officer exited his car, and Webster engaged in a conversation with another suspect. In addition, Webster made several phone calls, in which incriminating statements were made. These conversations were recorded on the patrol vehicle’s interior microphone. The recordings were reviewed and Webster’s statements were introduced as evidence against him regarding Federal drug and firearms charges.
Webster was convicted of the charges against him in U.S. District Court. He appealed his conviction to the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. One of his issues was whether the trial court erred in admitting the recordings of his conversations he had in the patrol vehicle. Webster argued that he had a 4th Amendment reasonable expectation of privacy in the prisoner compartment of the patrol vehicle, and as such, recording those conversations were a violation of his rights.
The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Ruling
In deciding the appeal, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals outlined that a reasonable expectation of privacy exists when a defendant manifested a subjective expectation of privacy and society recognizes that expectation to be reasonable (United States v. Walton, 763 F.3d 655, 658, 7th Cir. 2014). Therefore, it contains both a subjective and objective component.
The subjective component of the privacy expectation means a suspect believed that he or she had an expectation of privacy in the place searched, or conversation recorded, as in this case. The 7th Circuit noted that Webster did have a subjective expectation of privacy in the prisoner compartment of the police car during his conversations. This was evidenced by the fact that Webster did not make incriminating statements until after the officer exited the patrol car. However, the subjective expectation of privacy only covers half of the equation needed to activate 4th Amendment protections.
The second half of the equation needed to activate 4th Amendment protections, is the objective expectation of privacy. The objective part requires the expectation of privacy claimed by the individual suspect is accepted by society as reasonable. Only when both halves of the equation are present does the suspect have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” protected by the 4th Amendment.
This particular question had not been decided by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in the past so the Court looked to other Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal have decided this issue. The Court noted that the 1st, 4th, 5th, 8th, 10th, and 11th Circuits have held that a suspect does not possess a reasonable expectation of privacy in conversations that take place in the rear seat of a patrol vehicle.
In examining the reasoning of the other Circuits, the 7th Circuit Court noted that squad cars contain numerous electronics and recording devices, which should be apparent to occupants. Second, the Court noted that it is common knowledge that police cars possess video and audio recording equipment. Without those recordings we wouldn’t have all those great pursuit videos. Finally, the patrol car has been recognized by some Circuits as the mobile office of a police officer, and the back seat is recognized as a temporary jail of sorts.
After reviewing the cases from other Federal Circuits, the 7th Circuit ruled the very nature of the police cruiser, with visibly present electronics capable of transmitting or recording any internal conversations, eliminates an expectation of privacy. The expectation that a conversation within a police car is private is not an expectation society recognizes to be reasonable. The 7th Circuit agreed with the other Federal Circuits, holding that conversations in a police car are not entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy, and therefore recording those conversations does not violate the 4th Amendment.
As such, the Court held that Webster’s conversations were admissible in court, and his conviction was upheld.