case law update

Defendant Lacked Privacy Right in Vehicle Shipped to Him, Seventh Circuit

A defendant had no legitimate expectation of privacy in a car being shipped to him because he did not own the car, had never been inside it, and did not control the car’s contents, the Seventh Circuit recently held.

During a routine stop of a car hauler on a New Mexico highway, a New Mexico State Police patrolman noticed that a Saturn Vue, secured on a trailer attached to the car hauler’s truck, lacked a license plate. The officer asked to see the car’s paperwork and the hauler complied.

The contract for the car’s shipment showed the car was being shipped from someone in California to “Juan Pablo” in Indianapolis, listing the same phone number for both parties. The document also gave the car hauler the authority to drive the Saturn on and off his trailer, or to and from the trailer at the pickup or deliver site. Further, the officer saw a stack of air freshners in the car’s air conditioning vents, and after checking the car’s vehicle identification number, determined the Saturn was not owned by the shipper or receiver. The officer thus became suspicious the car was being used to traffic drugs.

At the officer’s request, the car hauler unlocked the Saturn. Inside, the officer found 46 pounds of methamphetamine in a hidden compartment below the console between the driver’s and front passenger’s seats. The car hauler then agreed to work with law enforcement to conduct a controlled delivery conducted under supervision of the Department of Homeland Security and the Indiana State Police.

The car hauler delivered the Saturn to the delivery address on the shipment contract, where Abel Covarrubias arrived, represented himself as “Juan Pablo” to the car hauler, paid the car hauler for the delivery, and drove the car away. Police arrested Covarrubias shortly thereafter.

Covarrubias was subsequently charged and convicted by a jury with possessing 50 grams or more of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, and with conspiring to commit that crime. At trial, Covarrubias moved to suppress the drug evidence, contending the search of the Saturn violated his reasonable expectation of privacy in the car and thus his Fourth Amendment rights. The district court denied that motion, and he appealed that denial on appeal of his conviction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

On appeal, Covarrubias argued he had legitimate subjective and objective expectations of privacy in the car. He argued the drugs’ concealment below the car’s center console gave him a subjective expectation of privacy, and that the shipment contract’s limitations on what the car hauler could do with the car gave him an objective expectation of privacy. The appeals court disagreed.

The Seventh Circuit reasoned that Covarrubias did not have a legitimate expectation of privacy in the car because he did not own it, he had never been inside it, and he did not control the car’s contents, at the time that law enforcement discovered the drugs. The court further wrote that Covarrubias had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the car because the car hauler controlled and had access to the car.

The appeals court thus affirmed the district court’s denial of Covarrubias’s motion to suppress.

Read the full case: U.S. v. Covarrubias


This case law update was written by James G. Heelan, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, P.C.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update


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