Thursday, December 07, 2006

AD4: removing center console of vehicle does not "impair the structural integrity of vehicle" and is covered by general consent to search

People v Reed 2006 NY Slip Op 08588 [available here]

Over a year ago, the Court of Appeals held that a suspect's general consent to a police vehicle search did not cover police action that impaired the structural integrity of the vehicle. (See People v Gomez, 2005 NY Slip Op 07828 [general consent to search not broad enough to cover police destroying parts of car with a crowbar].) In Reed, the Fourth Department confronted a less egregious fact pattern--rather than destroying parts of the car, the police disassembled the center console of the car by removing some screws, and reassembled the console when the search was complete. The Fourth Department upheld the search on defendant's general consent; from the decision:

Here, defendant gave the police a broad consent to search his "1991 Toyota." Defendant was present during the search of the vehicle and did not object to the scope of the search, nor did the search impair the structural integrity of the vehicle. The record establishes that the police did not break the console in order to search beneath it and that the screws securing the center column, some of which were broken before the police removed them, were not the original screws from the factory where the vehicle was manufactured.

(Reed, 2006 NY Slip Op 08588.)

The Fourth Department has thus set up a distinction between physically "destroying" a car and simply disassembling (and then reassembling) it. I'm not sure this gets at the question, i.e. whether a defendant giving a general consent to search would expect the police to start disassembling his vehicle. Even if the police can and do put the car back together at the end of the search, how far can the police go on a general consent? Under the Fourth Department's reasoning in Reed, there does not seem to be any upper limit on the degree of disassembly covered by a general consent. As long as the police are careful not to break anything and the suspect does not object while the car is being taken apart, it seems under Reed the search would be valid.