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United States v. Schecter

September 26, 1983



Author: Higginbotham

Before: HUNTER and HIGGINBOTHAM, Circuit Judges and Giles, District Judge*fn*



The government appeals from a district court order granting appellee's motion to suppress an inculpatory statement and evidence of stolen goods stemming from an allegedly illegal search of an automobile that was within the appellee's exclusive control. Because we believe that the police conducted a legal auto search, we will reverse the district court's order suppressing the evidence of stolen goods and vacate the order suppressing the inculpatory statements.


On the night of December 28, 1981, appellee, Jamal I. Schecter,*fn1 drove a borrowed auto off the highway and into some fencing. He was eighteen years old. Two New Jersey State Troopers arrived at the scene of the accident at approximately 10:30 P.M., shortly after the accident had occurred. Schecter did not sustain any physical injuries, but the state troopers found him stumbling about the auto and speaking in a slow, slurred, rambling and incoherent manner. Schecter informed the troopers that he had been taking methamphetamines for three days and that he had purchased $10 worth of cocaine earlier that day, at least some of which he ingested two hours prior to the accident. The "psycho-mental evaluation tests" the trooper administered to Schecter revealed that he was in a state of substantial drug intoxication. Consequently, the troopers arrested Schecter for driving while under the influence of drugs.

While they awaited the arrival of a truck to tow the auto Schecter was driving to the police barracks, the troopers searched the auto. One of the troopers saw in the front seat floor area a closed bottle containing a white crystalline substance. The bottle bore the label "Psuedocaine, An Incense." Tests performed days after Schecter's arrest determined that the bottle's contents were not an illegal controlled substance. The trooper also discovered on the auto's back seat approximately twenty boxes of "brand new packaging" labelled cologne and perfume. The other trooper testified that she could see those boxes in "plain view" while looking inside the auto from the highway. The trooper conducting the interior search of the auto removed the car keys from the ignition and opened the trunk where he found forty-nine men's suits individually wrapped in clear plastic bags. When the troopers asked Schecter to explain the presence of this merchandise, Schecter told them that they belonged to the auto's owner who was a salesman and distributor of men's clothing.

The state troopers drove Schecter to the police barracks. Schecter telephoned the owner of the auto and said that the owner would come down to the police barracks within an hour. However, the owner never arrived. The troopers testified that, four hours after the highway search, they inventoried the auto's contents as is their practice. This search yielded an invoice or packing list which contained the name of a company from which the troopers subsequently learned that the suits had been stolen from an interstate shipment of merchandise. Later that morning a state officer and two F.B.I. agents informed Schecter of his Miranda rights, and, after telling Schecter that they knew the goods had been stolen, the agents questioned him. Schecter later signed an inculpatory statement.

A federal grand jury indicted Schecter for possession of and for conspiracy to possess goods stolen from an interstate shipment of merchandise in violation of 18 U.S.C. ยง 2, 371 and 659. Schecter pled not guilty to these charges, repudiated his inculpatory statement and entered a motion to suppress his statements as well as the evidence found by the troopers in their search of the auto.

The district court granted Schecter's motion to suppress. It found that the troopers' warrantless searches of the auto were illegal because the troopers did not have probable cause to believe that the auto contained contraband or illegal merchandise.*fn2 The district court reasoned that Schecter's state of drug intoxication and his statements concerning his purchase and ingestion of cocaine and methamphetamines "provide a most fragile of foundations for a search of the car. Surely they provided the officers with no direct objective facts that the car was transporting illicit drugs." Appellant's Appendix ("App.") at 147.

Additionally, the district court found that the bottle containing the white crystalline substance did not provide the troopers with probable cause to search the auto. The court assumed that Schecter had consumed the entire quantity of cocaine he had purchased earlier and therefore concluded that "[t]here were no [objective] facts that would constitute probable cause to believe that any amount of drugs beyond the amount found in the bottle [was] secreted in the car." Id. at 148.

The district court similarly found that "the police completely lacked knowledge of any objective facts to give probable cause to believe that the suits and cologne were stolen." Id. The court asserted that the mere presence in the auto of the cologne and clothing did not in itself give the troopers probable cause to suspect that this merchandise was stolen. Rather, the " search uncovered such facts. But the facts were not known prior to the search." Id. (Emphasis in original.)

The government argued that the auto search at the police barracks was authorized as an inventory search. The district court rejected this contention for two reasons. First, the court declared that, "[t]o bring the search at [the police barracks] within the inventory exception, the Government must show that the search was not investigative." Id. at 149.One of the troopers had testified that her purpose for this search was not only to inventory the auto's contents but also to look for additional evidence. Second, the court found that the troopers inventoried only the stolen goods. Noting the police's admission of an investigatory purpose, plus the failure to record anything but a list of the suspicious goods, the court found that the second search at the police barracks "cannot come within the non-investigatory mantle of the inventory search." Id.

The district court granted Schecter's motion to suppress evidence holding that the highway search and the police barracks search of the auto were illegal because they come "within no recognized exception to the warrant requirement." Id. Moreover, the court found that Schecter's inculpatory statement was derived from the discovery of the stolen merchandise and was therefore the result of the illegal search of the auto. Consequently, the court held that the "inculpatory statement of the defendant is a fruit of the illegal search and must be suppressed." Id.

The government asks this court to reverse the district court's order granting Schecter's ...

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