Argued April 17, 2014
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. No. 13-cr-56-bbc -- Barbara B. Crabb, Judge.
For UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellant: Kevin F. Burke, Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Madison, WI.
For JUSTIN EDWARDS, Defendant - Appellee: Kelly A. Welsh, Attorney, FEDERAL DEFENDER SERVICES OF WISCONSIN, INC., Madison, WI.
Before MANION, SYKES, and TINDER, Circuit Judges.
Sykes, Circuit Judge.
Justin Edwards was indicted on federal gun charges after he was pulled over on suspicion of driving a stolen vehicle and the police found a sawed-off shotgun in the car. Moments before the stop, his girlfriend had called 911 to report that Edwards had just stolen her car. A nearby officer heard dispatch, spotted the car, and initiated a traffic stop. Sure enough, Edwards was behind the wheel. He did not have a valid driver's license, could not produce the vehicle's registration, and was evasive about whether he had his girlfriend's permission to drive the car, so the officer placed him under arrest. A subsequent search of the car revealed the sawed-off shotgun on the floor behind the front passenger seat. Edwards admitted the gun was his.
Edwards was charged with possession of a firearm as a felon and possession of an unregistered short-barreled shot-gun. He moved to suppress the gun, arguing that the warrantless search of the car violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment. The district court granted the motion, and the government appealed. See 18 U.S.C. § 3731.
We reverse. Under Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, 351, 129 S.Ct. 1710, 173 L.Ed.2d 485 (2009), a warrantless search of a vehicle incident to the arrest of one of its occupants requires reason to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. Here, Edwards was arrested for (among other possible offenses) driving a vehicle without the owner's consent; it was entirely reasonable to believe that evidence of the car's ownership--its registration or title, for example--would be found in the car. The search was likewise valid under the automobile exception because there was probable cause that evidence of a crime--again, the crime of driving a vehicle without the owner's consent--would be found in the car.
In the early morning hours of June 10, 2012, Veronica Fernandez called 911 to report that she and her boyfriend, Justin Edwards, had just had " a big argument" and he stole her car--a gray Mitsubishi Eclipse--and was driving away from her home in Ashland, Wisconsin. An Ashland police dispatcher broadcast the reported auto theft and described the car. Sergeant Dan Pufall, who knew both Fernandez and Edwards from prior police contacts, was on duty in the area and heard the broadcast. He spotted the Mitsubishi almost immediately. The car had no license plates or temporary tags, and Edwards was behind the wheel.
Sergeant Pufall initiated a traffic stop, approached the driver's side, and asked Edwards for his license and registration. Edwards didn't have either. Pufall asked him, " Whose car is it?" Edwards admitted that the car belonged to Fernandez. When Pufall again asked about registration, Edwards said the car was registered, checked the glove box for documentation, and told Pufall there were no registration documents in the car.
Pufall then asked Edwards what had happened that night. Edwards indicated that he was on his way to his mother's house because he and Fernandez had been " battling." He said that Fernandez had been itching for a fight, so he decided to leave. Pufall asked if he had permission from Fernandez to ...