Argued June 10, 2014
On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Crim. No. 3-11-cr-00033-001) Honorable A. Richard Caputo, District Judge.
Peter J. Smith, Esq. Todd K. Hinkley, Esq. (argued) Attorneys for Appellant.
Gino A. Bartolai, Jr., Esq. (argued) Attorney for Appellee.
BEFORE: AMBRO, GREENBERG, and BARRY, Circuit Judges.
GREENBERG, Circuit Judge.
In light of the "automobile exception" to the usual search warrant requirement, it is difficult to pick a worse place to conceal evidence of a crime than an automobile. The Supreme Court has interpreted-and reinterpreted-the automobile exception so expansively that the Court essentially has obviated the requirement that the government obtain a warrant to search a vehicle provided it has probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime. Nevertheless, appellee Joseph Donahue made a successful challenge in the District Court to the warrantless search of a vehicle that he had been driving but did not own because the Court accepted his contention that the government did not have probable cause for the search. The government appeals from the suppression order entered on November 19, 2013.
We trace the immediate background of this case to Donahue's conviction for fraud and related offenses and the resulting ten-year custodial sentence that a district court imposed on him in the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The court directed Donahue to surrender by a given time at a designated place to serve this sentence but he did not do so. Consequently, the court issued a warrant for his arrest and a short time later United States marshals apprehended Donahue in Las Cruces, New Mexico, while he was in his son's Ford Mustang. The marshals took possession of the Mustang and, over the next five days, personnel from two different federal agencies searched the vehicle several times, photographed, and even x-rayed it, all without applying for or obtaining a search warrant. Eventually an FBI agent found a firearm magazine clip under the Mustang's driver's seat, a discovery that led to their finding a semi-automatic pistol in a bag that they had seized from the Mustang's trunk.
Donahue's failure to surrender and the recovery of the pistol resulted in a grand jury returning indictments against him in the Middle District of Pennsylvania for failure to surrender under 18 U.S.C. §§ 3146(a)(2) and (b)(1)(A)(i) and for firearms offenses under 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1), (2), 922(j), and 924(a)(2). Donahue filed a motion to suppress evidence found in the Mustang and in a hotel room in Las Cruces in which he had registered under a false name. The District Court granted the motion on the ground that the government lacked probable cause for the searches. United States v. Donahue, No. 3:11-cr-00033, 2013 WL 6080192, at *6 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 19, 2013). The government appealed from the suppression order to the extent that the Court suppressed evidence found in the Mustang. The government, however, did not appeal from the portion of the order suppressing the evidence seized in the hotel room.
Even though it is clear that the government had the opportunity to seek a warrant before searching the Mustang, we hold that the automobile exception to the warrant requirement obviated its need to do so as the government had probable cause for the search of the Mustang and its contents. Inasmuch as the automobile exception was applicable, there were virtually no temporal, physical, or numerical limitations on the search's scope. Thus, the government could make a broad search of the Mustang including its contents, even if contained in packages- and could repeat the search as long as it remained in continuous control of the Mustang. The government took advantage of this broad authority and, in making its search lawfully uncovered evidence that Donahue had committed weapons-related offenses. Consequently, the District Court should not have suppressed the evidence the government seized in the search. Accordingly, we will reverse the order suppressing the evidence seized in the search of the Mustang and its contents and we will remand the case to the District Court for further proceedings.
II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Donahue enticed individuals to engage in his business ventures so that he could appropriate their identities and make unauthorized purchases using their credit. This scheme led to his conviction for 16 counts of bank fraud, money laundering, accessing an unauthorized device, and making false statements. United States v. Donahue, 460 F.App'x 141 (3d Cir. 2012) (affirming conviction). On December 3, 2010, the District Court sentenced Donahue to a 121-month custodial term and ordered him to pay $325, 414 in restitution. Id. at 142. The Court directed Donahue to surrender by January 4, 2011, at his place of confinement at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
Donahue, however, did not surrender as ordered, and consequently the District Court issued a warrant for his arrest on January 5, 2011. Instead of surrendering, Donahue drove across the country in his son's red Ford Mustang to Las Cruces in an attempt to avoid imprisonment. This attempt came to naught when United States marshals in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, became aware that Donahue might be in Las Cruces and notified authorities there of that information. Two weeks after Donahue should have surrendered, United States marshals in Las Cruces, assisted by New Mexico State University police, arrested him near the campus when they saw him exit a hotel in which he had registered under an alias and enter his son's Mustang. ...