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Media Alerts - U.S v. Joseph Donahue - Third Circuit
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August 25, 2014
  U.S v. Joseph Donahue - Third Circuit
Headline: The Fourth Amendment's automobile exception authorizes a warrantless search of a car seized when a fugitive from post-sentencing surrender is apprehended.

Area of Law: Search and seizure

Issue Presented: Does the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment authorize the government to search a car without a warrant if it has probable cause to believe that the car contains evidence of a crime?

Brief Summary: After being convicted for fraud and money laundering, among other charges, Joseph P. Donahue was sentenced to a ten-year prison term. Donahue avoided surrendering by driving across the country in his son's Ford Mustang. A U.S. Marshall apprehended Donahue and searched the Mustang; a second search lead to the finding of a firearms magazine and semi-automatic pistol. The District Court granted Donahue's motion to suppress the evidence seized from the Mustang, finding that the arresting officer did not subjectively think there was probable cause to believe the car contained contraband and that the crime had been completed before the search. The Third Circuit reversed, holding that there was objective probable cause to believe the car contained evidence of the crime of failing to surrender.

Extended Summary: This case concerns Joseph Donahue's motion to suppress evidence after U.S marshals searched a Ford Mustang that Donahue used to avoid surrendering to prison and found a semi-automatic pistol. Joseph Donahue was originally convicted for 16 counts of bank fraud, money laundering, accessing an unauthorized device, and making false statements. On December 3, 2010, he was sentenced to a ten-year custodial term and directed Donahue to surrender by January 4, 2011.

Donahue, however, did not surrender as ordered, and instead drove across the country in his son's red Ford Mustang to Las Cruces in an attempt to avoid imprisonment. Consequently, the District Court issued a warrant for his arrest. United States marshals and New Mexico police arrested him in Las Cruces. On orders from a supervisor and the Marshall in Pennsylvania, the arresting officer seized the car and searched it. Several marshals then photographed the vehicle, searched the trunk and cabin, and removed loose items. An FBI agent made a second inventory search and discovered a firearm magazine and later found a semi-automatic pistol in a bag.

These events caused a grand jury in the Middle District of Pennsylvania to return an indictment against Donahue for failure to surrender and for weapons charges. Donahue then moved to suppress all the evidence seized from the Mustang. Donahue argued that the warrantless searches were unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The District Court granted Donahue's motion, holding that the conditions for the automobile exception, which allows the government to make a warrantless search of an automobile if applicable, had not been met because the government lacked probable cause to believe that there was contraband in the vehicle.

The Third Circuit reversed, holding that there was probable cause to search the Mustang because it was reasonable to believe that Donahue would have items such as false identification that could help him avoid detection and thus would constitute evidence of the crime of failing to surrender. The Third Circuit emphasized that the automobile exception permits vehicle searches without a warrant if there is "probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime." The Third Circuit then noted that no precedent states that the automobile exception justifies only a single search of a seized vehicle - any subsequent search "should be viewed as part of ongoing process." Thus, the Third Circuit reasoned, the validity of the search solely depends on whether the government had probable cause to believe that the Mustang contained evidence of a crime when it seized the car.

The Third Circuit concluded that it was "reasonable to believe that the Mustang contained items showing that Donahue knowingly failed to surrender," in violation of a federal statute. By knowingly failing to surrender, Donahue was likely to have false identification documents, which would commonly be found in places where items are "ready and available . . . to gather up and leave quickly, such as their cars." The Third Circuit also rejected the District Court's suggestion that an officer could establish that there was probable cause for a search only if he subjectively believed that the search would reveal contraband. The standard is objective and evidence of a crime is not limited to contraband. The search was lawful even if the government already had compelling evidence that Donahue had committed the crime of failing to surrender. Thus the Third Circuit reversed.

To read the full opinion, please visit http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/134767p.pdf

Panel (if known): Ambro, Greenberg, and Barry, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: June 10, 2014

Date of Issued Opinion: August 22, 2014

Docket Number: No. 13-4767

Decided: Reversed and remanded

Case Alert Author: Joe Mathew

Counsel: Peter J. Smith, Esq., Todd K. Hinkley, Esq. for the Appellant the United States of America; and Gino A. Bartolai, Jr., Esq. for Appellee Joseph P. Donahue

Author of Opinion: Judge Greenberg

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Supervisor: Prof. Susan L. DeJarnatt

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 08/25/2014 03:55 PM     3rd Circuit  

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