STATE v. CHRISTOPHER BUTLER, SC 18466
Judicial District of New Haven at G.A. 23
Criminal; Search and Seizure; Whether Search of Defendant's Vehicle was Unconstitutional Under Arizona v. Gant, 129 S. Ct. 1710 (2009). In 2006, New Haven police officers stopped the defendant's automobile on the grounds that he had made a right turn without signaling and that he was not wearing his seatbelt. After seeing the defendant closing the vehicle's center console, the police ordered him and his two passengers out of the automobile, patted them down for weapons, handcuffed them and moved them to an area some distance away from the vehicle. One of the officers then opened the console and found a plastic bag that contained narcotics. The defendant was charged with, among other things, possession of narcotics with the intent to sell. Before trial, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the narcotics, arguing that the warrantless search of the vehicle and seizure of the narcotics violated his fourth amendment rights because no exception to the warrant requirement had been satisfied and because the search was not supported by probable cause. The state countered that the search and seizure were justified because they were conducted to ensure the safety of the officers. The trial court denied the motion, concluding that the officers had probable cause to search the vehicle in light of the fact that the defendant had made furtive movements and had placed something in the console. At the close of the evidence, the defendant moved for a judgment of acquittal, contending that the evidence failed to establish that he had exercised dominion and control over the narcotics. The court denied the motion. Subsequently, the jury found the defendant guilty of possession of narcotics with the intent to sell. In this appeal, the defendant argues that the search of his vehicle was unconstitutional pursuant to Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. ___, 129 S. Ct. 1710 (2009), which held that police officers may not conduct a warrantless search of the passenger compartment of a vehicle unless it is reasonable to believe that the occupant under arrest might gain access to the vehicle at the time of the search or that the vehicle contains evidence that is relevant to the offense for which the occupant was arrested. Relying on the doctrine of nonexclusive possession, he also claims that the evidence was insufficient to establish that he, rather than the other occupants of the vehicle, was in possession of the narcotics. In response, the state maintains that the search and seizure issue is controlled not by Gant, but by Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983), which held that where no arrest is made, police officers may search the vehicle if they reasonably believe that the suspect is dangerous and may gain immediate control of weapons. The state explains that the defendant was not, as he claims, under arrest for motor vehicle violations when he was initially handcuffed, but that he was arrested for narcotics offenses only after the officers justifiably searched the console for weapons. It also contends that the jury reasonably concluded that the narcotics that were found in the console were in the defendant's possession.