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Minnesota high court nixes ‘purse-as-person’ theory

One justice suggested that a woman who argued that her purse was a closely held part of her person, and therefore not subject to a search of a vehicle, may have had better luck pursuing a state-constitution claim.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday against a woman who argued that her purse, carried outside of her car during a traffic stop, was part of her person and therefore not subject to warrantless searches. 

Attorneys for Amber Barrow argued before the court in January for reversal of her 2018 fifth-degree possession conviction, saying that a police officer should not have been allowed to search her purse after she removed it from the vehicle he planned to search. The officer, who had initiated the car search after saying that he smelled marijuana, found four Clonazepam pills in Barrow’s purse after he told Barrow to leave the purse and returned it to the car. 

Attorney Abigail Rankin, representing Barrow, held during those arguments that the purse was a closely-held item and part of Barrow’s person, not a container inside the car. She compared it to a wallet that the car’s male driver had also removed from the car, which the officer did not search. 

Justice Natalie Hudson wrote the court’s majority opinion. In it, she found that Barrow’s situation differed from those in two cases she cited: the Minnesota Supreme Court’s 1996 decision in State v. Wynne  and a 1999 concurrence by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Justice Stephen Breyer in Wyoming v. Houghton. 

In Wynne, Hudson noted, a purse was determined to be outside the scope of a search warrant for the defendant’s home because it was not “lying about” the home but worn on the defendant’s shoulder. The difference between the home search and a car search, Hudson wrote, “is material: unlike a home, where a person’s privacy expectations ‘are most heightened.’” In Houghton, she wrote, “the Supreme Court has explained that a passenger’s privacy expectations in a car are ‘considerably diminished.’” 

Hudson also paid note to Barrow’s implicit argument that treating purses differently from wallets created a practice of gender discrimination, but said it wasn’t properly raised here. “Barrow does not explain how this argument is legally relevant under the Fourth Amendment,” she wrote. “Even assuming that her argument is somehow relevant to our Fourth Amendment analysis, Barrow’s argument misses the mark… her definition of a ‘purse’ would extend to bags commonly worn by men and women, including backpacks, fanny packs, briefcases, and duffle bags.”

Justice Margaret Chutich penned a concurrence to the decision in which she proposed an alternate route for Barrow’s case. Chutich noted that while the search of Barrow’s purse was lawful under the federal Constitution, she may have prevailed had she raised a claim under the Minnesota Constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. 

“Over the past half century, federal and state jurisprudence has made clear that the federal Constitution acts as a floor — not a ceiling — when it comes to protecting individual rights,” Chutich wrote. She paid note to critiques of what she called “the creeping expansion of the automobile exception,” and said that Barrow’s case demonstrated “excesses” of the exception. 

“We have recognized that our state constitution is more sensitive to privacy intrusions concerning automobiles and their occupants than the federal Constitution,” Chutich wrote. “Our precedent, along with the informed views of scholars and other state courts, make me question whether the Minnesota Constitution allows the state to automatically examine a passenger’s purse in a car without some additional showing.” 

Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Criminal, Law

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