U.S. v. Carter – Case Brief Summary (Federal Court)

In U.S. v. Carter, 300 F.3d 415, 422 (4th Cir. 2002), twenty defendants were named in an indictment stemming from a series of arrests in a housing project in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Id. at 420. Five appellants were joined for trial. Id.

One of the defendants, Jerry McRae, had been pulled over for speeding. Id. The officer who initiated the traffic stop "testified that when he approached the vehicle, he smelled burnt marijuana in the air." Id. He asked McRae for permission to search the vehicle; McRae refused. Id.

The officer released a drug-sniffing dog from his patrol vehicle and the dog alerted "when walking by the driver's side door." Id. Based on the dog's alert, the officer "searched the entire passenger compartment of the vehicle and found a quantity of marijuana on the passenger side of the center console." Id.

An additional search of the locked trunk of McRae's vehicle resulted in the recovery of a kilogram of cocaine within a locked suitcase that was inside of the trunk. Id.

The court stated that the officer "clearly had probable cause to search the passenger compartment of McRae's vehicle without a warrant, based on the burning marijuana he smelled as he approached the car." Id. at 422.

As to whether the officer "also had probable cause to search the locked trunk of the car and the closed suitcase inside the trunk," the government argued that the "dog's 'alerting' on the driver side of the car gave the officer probable cause to search the entire vehicle: including the trunk and the suitcase." Id.

In response to that argument, the court stated that the government "overstates the matter," but concluded that the search of the trunk and the suitcase was proper because the dog's alert "was sufficiently close to the trunk to give the officer probable cause to believe it contained contraband." Id.