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Media Alerts - Winfield, et al. v. Trottier
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March 6, 2013
  Winfield, et al. v. Trottier
Headline: Second Circuit Rules That Police Officer Violated Fourth Amendment By Reading a Motorist's Mail While Doing a Consensual Search of Her Car, But Grants Qualified Immunity

Area of Law: Criminal Procedure

Issue(s) Presented: Whether a police officer violated the Fourth Amendment by reading a motorist's mail after she gave general consent to search her car, and if so, whether this behavior so clearly violated the Fourth Amendment that the officer was not entitled to qualified immunity.

Brief Summary: On May 26, 2007, Marie Winfield and her son Jason were driving north on Interstate 89 in Vermont. Daniel Trottier, a Vermont state trooper, stopped Winfield for driving twenty miles per hour over the speed limit. Deeming Winfield and her son suspicious, Trottier spoke with Winfield, asking: "There's nothing in there I should know about is there? No guns or money?" Winfield responded: "You can look if you want." Trottier, who admits he was not looking for anything in particular, found an envelope addressed either to or from a court, opened it, and read what was inside. The envelope contained a court document pertaining to the arrest of Winfield's husband "for possession," and a letter that Winfield had written to a judge. He found nothing incriminating, however, and the Winfields proceeded on their way with only a speeding citation. They later brought suit in the United States District Court for the District of Vermont, alleging, inter alia, violations of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures. Trottier subsequently moved for qualified immunity. Although the district court denied the motion, the Second Circuit reversed. The court held that although Trottier exceeded the scope of Winfield's consent for the search, thus violating Winfield's Fourth Amendment rights, a reasonable officer would not have understood that what he was doing violated the Fourth Amendment, and Winfield was therefore entitled to qualified immunity.
To read the full opinion, please visit http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/de...6eacc64571c/2/hilite/.

Extended Summary: On May 26, 2007, Marie Winfield ("Winfield") and her son Jason were driving north on Interstate 89 in Vermont. Daniel Trottier ("Trottier"), a Vermont state trooper, stopped Winfield for driving twenty miles per hour over the speed limit. Trottier deemed both Winfield and Jason suspicious and decided to search the car. While waiting for verification of Winfield's identity, Trottier asked: "Ms. Winfield, you don't have to if you don't want to, but while we're waiting, would you mind coming back here for a minute [behind the car] and talk[ing] to me for a second?" Winfield got out, walked to the back of the car, and had a conversation with the officer. Trottier asked: "There's nothing in there I should know about is there? No guns or money?" Winfield responded: "You can look if you want." Trottier, who admits he was not looking for anything in particular, found an envelope addressed either to or from a court, opened it, and read what was inside. The envelope contained a court document pertaining to the arrest of Winfield's husband "for possession," and a letter that Winfield had written to a judge.

The Winfields brought suit in the United States District Court for the District of Vermont, alleging, inter alia, violations of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures. Trottier then moved for qualified immunity, which protects officials from liability for civil damages as long as their conduct does not violated clearly established constitutional rights of which a reasonable officer would have known.

The district court denied the motion for qualified immunity, finding that Winfield did not give consent to read her mail and that it was well-established that a search that exceeds the scope of consent is a violation of a suspect's Fourth Amendment rights. Trottier then appealed.

The Second Circuit reversed, holding that while the scope of Winfield's consent did not extend to the text of her mail, this right was not clearly established at the time of the search and Trottier was entitled to qualified immunity. To decide whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity, courts conduct a two-part analysis, asking whether (1) the facts shown make out a violation of the suspect's constitutional right, and (2) the right at issue was clearly established at the time of defendant's alleged misconduct.

Here, the court first found that Winfield's constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches was violated as Trottier exceeded the scope of her consent when he read the mail. Trottier had argued that he read the letter because he thought it might contain evidence of parole or probation violation. While the court found this a conceivable rationale for reading mail, it held that a reasonable person would not believe that Winfield's consent authorized such a search for such a purpose, stating that "[o]nce Trottier opened the envelope and discovered neither large sums of money nor contraband, he should have moved on . . . ."

The court next found that the right at issue was not clearly established at the time of defendant's alleged misconduct. To be clearly established, "[t]he contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right." The court defined the right at issue as: "It is a Fourth Amendment violation when a police officer reads a suspect's private papers, the text of which is not in plan view, while conducting a search authorized solely by the suspect's generalized consent to search the area in which the papers are found." As no prior case in the Second Circuit had so held, "Trottier's actions were objectively legally reasonable in light of the legal rules that were clearly established at the time it was taken and he [was] entitled to qualified immunity."

To read the full opinion, please visit http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/de...6eacc64571c/2/hilite/.

Panel (if known): Chief Judge Jacobs; Judges Pooler and Hall

Argument (if known): 10/05/2012

Date of Issued Opinion: 03/06/2013

Docket Number: 11-4404-cv

Decided: Reversed.

Case Alert Author: Lindsey E. Haubenreich

Counsel: MICHAEL B. KIMBERLY, Mayer Brown LLP, Washington DC, for Appellees. MEGAN J. SHAFRITZ, Assistant Attorney General, (Jana M. Brown on the brief) for, William H. Sorrell, Attorney General for the State of Vermont for Appellant.

Author of Opinion: Chief Judge Jacobs

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Emily Gold Waldman

    Posted By: Emily Waldman @ 03/06/2013 04:16 PM     2nd Circuit  

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