(CN) - A cop who violated a mother's rights by reading her mail in a traffic stop and ensuing search is entitled to qualified immunity, the 2nd Circuit ruled.
Vermont state trooper Daniel Trottier caught Marie Winfield doing 20 mph over the speed limit on May 26, 2007. Winfield and her son Jason had been traveling north on Interstate 89 in Vermont to visit her father in Montreal.
Noticing that Jason would not make eye contact with Trottier, and that Winfield's leg was shaking as she ate a Powerbar in "a hurried manner," Trottier called for backup.
After state trooper Aimee Nolan arrived, Trottier said he noticed Winfield was shaking. He then asked if there was anything in her car he should "know about."
Winfield explained she was "probably tired" from her daughter's high school graduation from the night before, and gave Trottier consent to search her car.
When Trottier found an envelope addressed either to or from a court, he opened it and read what was inside - a court document pertaining to the arrest of Winfield's husband "for possession," and a letter that Winfield had written to a judge.
Trottier issued Winfield a speeding citation and let her drive away.
The Winfields sued Trottier and Nolan, alleging violations of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.
A federal judge in Vermont denied Trottier qualified immunity, holding that "no reasonable understanding of the exchange between Ms. Winfield and Trooper Trottier could be construed as consent for Trooper Trottier to read Ms. Winfield's mail, regardless of to whom or from whom [the mail] was addressed."
The 2nd Circuit concluded last week that Trottier had violated the Fourth Amendment since Winfield did not consent to having her mail read.
"The typical reasonable person would not assume that consent to a general search of a car for contraband would include consent to read personal papers," Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs wrote for a three-judge panel. "Once Trottier opened the envelope and discovered neither large sums of money nor contraband, he should have moved on to search the rest of the car. Trottier exceeded the scope of Winfield's consent when he read the letter.
"Trottier argues that he read her mail because he thought it might contain evidence of a parole or probation violation. That is a conceivable rationale for reading mail, just as Trottier might have perused love letters for evidence of statutory rape, or brokerage receipts for evidence of insider trading. But the issue is whether a reasonable person would believe that the consent given by Winfield authorized such a search for such a purpose. We think not. And Trottier cites no persuasive authority in his support."
Because Winfield's right was not "clearly established," however, the 2nd Circuit said Trottier did qualify for immunity.
"The right at issue is properly stated as follows: It is a Fourth Amendment violation when a police officer reads a suspect's private papers, the text of which is not in plain view, while conducting a search authorized solely by the suspect's generalized consent to search the area in which the papers are found," Jacobs wrote. "No prior case in the 2nd Circuit has so held. Accordingly, 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 is entitled to qualified immunity."
On remand, the lower court must enter judgment for Trottier on the ground of qualified immunity, according to the ruling.
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