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Friday, April 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Minnesota high court considers purse-search boundaries

The court started the new year with a question of whether police properly included a passenger's worn purse in a car search.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) -- Minnesota handbag owners, take note: the state’s Supreme Court may soon rule on when and whether police can search a purse. 

Amber Barrow was convicted of fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance in 2018, after a police officer in the small central Minnesota town of Avon found four pills in her purse during a traffic stop. Wednesday’s arguments concerned whether the officer had a right to search the purse, which Barrow had taken out of the car seconds after she exited it. 

Barrow’s attorney Abigail Rankin argued that the purse, which the officer took from Rankin and placed back in the car before he searched it, was part of Barrow’s person rather than a container in the vehicle. The smell of marijuana the officer reported as probable cause to search the car, she said, was not enough to justify a personal search. 

Per Rankin, gender discrimination questions lurked under the surface of the unlawful-search issue. The male driver of the vehicle, Rankin noted, had also taken something from the car: his wallet, in his hand rather than in his pocket. 

“That wasn’t searched, ever,” Rankin said. “But because Ms. Barrow was carrying a purse, her items, her wallet in the purse, would have been subject to search. That’s a disparate impact under the 4th Amendment, a lack of equal protection.” 

Questioned by Chief Justice Lori Gildea as to whether Barrow was truly ‘wearing’ her purse, Rankin pointed out that purse users often keep their purses around their legs when in a vehicle, in part to avoid entanglement with or obstruction of seat belts. The common definition of “wearing,” then, would exclude almost anyone who took a purse in a car. “I would suggest that in this case, ‘wearing’ should mean ‘affixed in some fashion, or immediately associated with no indication of abandonment.’” 

Assistant Stearns County Attorney River Thelen argued that making purses “attached” to their owners’ persons as a default would be open to exploitation by those who wish not to be searched. Additionally, he said, while a purse could in some cases be considered attached, it wasn’t in this case. 

Repeating the questioning of Chief Justice Lori Gildea, Thelen also pointed out that Barrow did not bring the purse out of the car with her, but had to reach for it after the fact and may have been taking it from the back seat. “An attached container does not separate from you when you exit a vehicle,” he said. You don’t have to reach back into the vehicle to attain it. That’s the nature of being attached.” 

Gildea also worried that allowing purses to be exempt as a rule could be a “slippery-slope” trap. “This case is a purse, the next case will be a backpack, the next will be a suitcase,” she said. 

Barrow may have found allies in Justices Paul Thissen, Barry Anderson and Margaret Chutich. Thissen peppered Thelen with pointed questions about the differences between Barrow’s purse and a fanny pack– which Thelen conceded would likely be considered “attached” to one’s person. Chutich, meanwhile, mused that requiring purse users to emerge from cars fully-equipped could be a big ask. 

“As a woman who’s carried purses in and out of cars, sometimes it’s not possible to get out of the car with a purse on your shoulder,” Chutich said. “I mean, she had it within seconds,” 

Justice Natalie Hudson took a dimmer view of those seconds. “The state is saying that nanosecond matters. And it probably does,” she said. She pointed out that the court had handled similar issues before, and said she was wary of creating new, ambiguous rules concerning searches. “Do we want to add another squishy test for law-enforcement officers?” she asked. “Which, in some ways, doesn’t benefit the public either.” 

Gildea agreed that any ruling the court made should establish a “bright-line” rule. Thelen argued that any container inside a vehicle at the time an officer establishes probable cause should be subject to search, if it could feasibly hold the object being searched for. The officer, he added, had placed Barrow’s purse back in the car before noting a smell of marijuana. 

Rankin, meanwhile, pointed out that purses often hold items important and to their owners, and that they should be “associated with someone’s privacy. And when it’s worn, it’s associated with someone’s person.” She clarified, however, that she wasn’t seeking a rule preventing officers from searching purses as part of car stops wholesale, and pushed against the bright-line idea in favor of focusing on the facts of the case. “The key concepts are whether this purse is an extension of the person… whether Ms. Barrow abandoned the purse, which she did not, and whether the automobile exception should be expanded to apply to Ms. Barrow’s person and the extension of her person.”

Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Criminal

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