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The scope of a search is generally defined by its expressed object. A general consent to search, on its own, does not give an officer unfettered search authority. In the absence of other circumstances indicating that a defendant has authorized the actions taken by police, a general consent to search alone cannot justify a search that impairs the structural integrity of a vehicle or that results in the vehicle being returned in a materially different manner than it has been found.
The officer stopped defendant for a tinted window traffic infraction, and obtained defendant's consent to search his auto. The officer searched the auto using a crowbar, removed the attached carpeting of the car, and uncovered drugs. Defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the vehicular search was denied, and he was convicted of drug-related charges. Defendant challenged his conviction.
Was the police officer allowed by the Fourth Amendment to conduct a destructive search of a suspect's auto based on the suspect's general consent to search?
The highest court concluded as a matter of law that the search of the auto exceeded the scope of defendant's consent. The officer damaged the auto by removing attached carpeting and physically altering sheet metal, floor board, carpet, and gas tank with a crowbar. Defendant's general consent to "search," on its own, did not give the officer unfettered search authority. In the absence of other circumstances indicating that defendant authorized the actions taken by the officer, a general consent to search alone could not justify a search impairing the structural integrity of the auto or resulting in the auto being returned in a materially different manner than it was found. The officer should have first obtained defendant's specific consent to expand the search. The search as a whole clearly exceeded the scope of the consent.