Imagine that you are at an airport and you see a traveler carrying the following case:
That the traveler stores his guitar inside that case is a foregone conclusion, wouldn't you agree? To open the case, the Fourth Amendment requires law enforcement to first obtain a warrant, absent some exception.
One such exception to the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless searches of “containers (for example a kit of burglar tools or a gun case) [that] by their very nature cannot support any reasonable expectation of privacy because their contents can be inferred from their outward appearance." Arkansas v. Sanders, 442 U.S. 753, 764 n.13 (1979). In other words, where a container has a "distinctive configuration" that "proclaims its contents," its contents are a "foregone conclusion." See Robbins v. California, 453 U.S. 420 (1981) (plurality op.).
This exception is the subject of today’s circuit split. Last week, the Fourth Circuit wrestled with the scope of the “proclaims-its-contents” exception to the warrant requirement in United States v. Davis, No. 09-4890, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 17217 (4th Cir. Aug. 16, 2012). In his dissenting opinion, Judge Andre Davis outlined the following division over the proper application of this exception:
The constitutionality of this corollary to the plain view seizure doctrine is widely accepted, but there seems to be a circuit split with respect to whether the "foregone conclusion" analysis incorporates extrinsic evidence and/or an officer's specialized knowledge. In Williams we considered relevant that the officer had years of experience in narcotics investigations. 41 F.3d at 198. Other circuits have instead analyzed the question from the objective viewpoint of a reasonable layperson. See, e.g., United States v. Gust, 405 F.3d 797, 803 (9th Cir. 2005) ("[C]ourts should assess the nature of a container primarily with reference to general social norms rather than solely by the experience and expertise of law enforcement officers.") (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted); United States v. Meada, 408 F.3d 14, 23 (1st Cir. 2005) (holding that the defendant had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of a container that was labeled "GUN GUARD" and thus was "readily identifiable as a gun case"); United States v. Villarreal, 963 F.2d 770, 775-76 (5th Cir. 1992) (holding that even though fifty-five gallon drums were labeled "phosphoric acid," their contents could not necessarily be "inferred"; "The fact that the exterior of a container purports to reveal some information about its contents does not necessarily mean that its owner has no reasonable expectation that those contents will remain free from inspection by others."); United States v. Bonitz, 826 F.2d 954, 956 (10th Cir. 1987) ("This hard plastic case did not reveal its contents to the trial court even though it could perhaps have been identified as a gun case by a firearms expert."). I believe the latter view is the proper one, because it is consistent with the underlying rationale that a person does not maintain a reasonable expectation of privacy in contents of a container that are essentially open to view.
Id. at *130–131 n.13 (Davis, J., dissenting).
(In case you were wondering, "Baby Earl" is the name of the defendant in Davis according to the opinion's caption, which reads: "United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Earl Whittley Davis, a/k/a Baby Earl, a/k/a E, Defendant-Appellant." You'll have to read the opinion to find out what was wrapped inside Baby Earl's opaque package.)