7th Circuit reverses man’s habeas relief over vehicle search

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed habeas corpus relief granted to a man in a disputed search case where police opened a locked box full of illegal drugs while executing an arrest warrant.

After Indiana police arrested Raymond Marling on a warrant while he was driving his car, officers took an inventory of its contents and found a locked box in the vehicle’s trunk. An officer opened the box with a screwdriver and found illegal drugs, which later played a role in his convictions and 38-year sentence, which included a 20-year habitual offender enhancement.

Marling’s lawyer asked the trial court to suppress the contents of the box, arguing that opening it was improper, but the argument lost in the trial court and lost again on appeal. Later on, Marling filed a collateral attack alleging that his trial and appellate lawyers had furnished ineffective assistance by not presenting the best reasons for objecting to the box’s opening. Rather, Marling argued that his counsel should have argued that opening his box damaged it, violating the police department’s policy.

That contention was rejected, until the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana issued a writ of habeas corpus, ruling that a photograph in the record shows damage to the box’s lock. Thus, the district court judge concluded that the state court’s finding had been rebutted by clear and convincing evidence.

“The district judge found both deficient performance and prejudice because Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1 (1990), holds that the validity of an inventory search depends on the police department having a policy about when to take inventories. The judge read Wells to say that compliance with this policy is essential, which implies that a violation of a local policy also violates the Constitution. The judge read the local policy at issue to forbid damage to a container, which led him to find a constitutional error, which counsel had failed to call to the state court’s attention. We think that the judge has misunderstood both Wells and the local policy,” Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote for the 7th Circuit.

“The judge included in his opinion a picture showing some damage to the box’s lock. That was enough, he thought, to establish the policy’s violation, even though Marling did not draw this picture to the attention of the state’s appellate court. Let us suppose that the judges should have examined the picture anyway. Still, the policy does not forbid all damage; it forbids unreasonable damage. This box was intact, and the lock could have been fixed or replaced. Why was the damage ‘unreasonable’? The judge did not say,” Easterbrook wrote.

Noting that it did not see a violation of local policy, the 7th Circuit therefore reversed the district court’s ruling in Raymond Marling v. Richard Brown, 19-3077.

“The officer who opened and inventoried the contents of this box acted within the scope of discretion granted by General Order 49. As Wells requires, discretion under the policy is unrelated to beliefs about the container’s contents. If the officer did too much (‘unreasonable’) damage, that could have been the basis for a tort claim under state law. It is not a basis for a conclusion that the Fourth Amendment required the suppression of incriminating evidence. It follows that counsel did not violate the Sixth Amendment by omitting this line of argument,” the 7th Circuit concluded.

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