Notebook found in car falls under Fourth Amendment exception

A notebook taken from a vehicle during an investigation of an identity-theft scheme was admissible at trial even though police did not have a search warrant, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

Willie J. Harris was convicted in May 2013 after being identified as the ringleader in a three-year conspiracy to commit credit card fraud that involved more than 50 victims and resulted in a pecuniary loss of about $300,000. A northern Indiana jury found him guilty of two counts of fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit fraud with identification documents, three counts of production and trafficking in counterfeit devices (credit card fraud), one count of aggravated identity theft.

On appeal, Harris argued the notebook taken from his vehicle should not have been allowed as evidence at trial. He contended the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment prohibition on warrantless searches does not apply because law enforcement lacked probable cause to search his truck and that there was no reasonable basis for the officer to believe there would be evidence of identity theft in the vehicle.

Munster police retrieved the notebook from Harris’ truck after one of his co-conspirators was detained following a suspicious transaction at a Chase Bank branch. The co-conspirator asked an officer to get her personal belongings from the vehicle and the office took a backpack, a wallet and the notebook.

The notebook was found to have a trove of personal information on 14 people including birth dates, Social Security numbers and credit card numbers. Both Harris and the co-conspirator denied ownership of the notebook. An analysis found two of the fingerprints lifted from the notebook matched Harris’ prints.

Rejecting Harris’ argument, the 7th Circuit found probable cause did exist to search the truck in United States of America v. Willie J. Harris, 14-1846. Harris’ co-conspirator had just been arrested and caught with multiple credit cards not in her name and a slip of paper containing personal information on at least one of the owners of those cards. Also, she traveled in the truck to the bank to commit fraud.  

Under those circumstances, the panel concluded, it was reasonable to believe there would be further evidence of identify theft in the truck.


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