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Can police ask a lawfully seized passenger to search her purse?

Posted Monday, February 25, 2019 by Andrew Charles Huff

If police conduct a lawful traffic stop of the car’s driver, can they also ask a passenger for consent to search a purse left inside the car after the owner mentioned her prior drug conviction?

This issue was recently before the Washington State Court of Appeals, Division I when officers conducted a traffic stop and arrest of the driver for a suspended license. The passenger Ms Carmen Rose Lee was asked to exit the vehicle so police could search it. Ms Lee left her purse in the car after exiting.

After arresting the driver, officers Ms Lee’s identification to determine if she had a driver’s license so she could the car so not to be impounded. When officers ran this background check, they discovered Ms Lee had a conviction for possession of a controlled substance, which she also mentioned to officers. This statement led to a request to search her purse after advising her she did not have to consent. However, Lee consented to the search of her purse where officers found drugs.

On appeal, Ms Lee argues that police exceeded the reasonable scope and duration limitations by asking a lawfully seized passenger for consent to search her purse left inside the car after mentioning a prior drug conviction. She further argues that her consent to search was not actually valid because officers unlawfully seized her.

The Court held that Ms Lee was properly seized as a passenger in the traffic stop and remainedreasonably seized for the duration of the stop. Under the totality of the circumstances, the police did not exceed the reasonable scope and duration limitations by asking Lee for consent to search her purse left inside the car and mentioning her prior drug conviction. Therefore, Lee’s voluntary consent to search her purse was valid.

State of Washington v. Carmen Rose Lee, Division I, 77038-1-1

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