Feeling the Heat: State v. Speights Vehicle Search

January 9, 2024
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Is that car’s hood warm?  Finding out may put you in the hot seat.  This article discusses Utah’s State v. Speights case and how simply touching a vehicle can be considered a search.

Background of the case

The State v. Speights, 2021 UT 56, 497 P.3d 340 (Utah 2021) case begins in the early morning hours at townhome in American Fork, Utah.  The residents of the townhome are awakened to the sound of their ringing doorbell, checking doorknobs, and pounding on the front door.  The unknown person then banged on the bedroom window and ultimately ended up at the back door of the residence.  The resident called out asking who was there and heard an inaudible response that “sounded like a woman.” The residents called 911 to report the possible intruder.

Officer Nelson and Sergeant Stowers of the American Fork Police Department quickly arrived and began investigating. Both Officer Nelson and Sergeant Stowers noticed a Ford Explorer that was parked partially on the grass and partially on some cement near the visitor parking and community mailboxes due to its unusual positioning. The vehicle was very close to the townhome, was unoccupied, the driver’s side door was not completely closed, and the interior lights were on. Sgt. Stowers also noticed a bottle of liquor that was partially full on the driver’s side floorboard. He did not see keys in the ignition or elsewhere inside the vehicle. Sgt. Stowers placed his hand into the wheel well on the driver’s side and noticed that the engine compartment was still hot.

The townhome residents noticed that the door to their garage was open, which was unusual, and gave the officers permission to search the garage.  Sgt. Stowers and Ofc. Nelson discovered a woman, later identified as Holly Speights, laying on a child’s inflatable bouncy house; near Speights were the keys to the Ford. Speights slurred her words, had difficulty putting sentences together, and was unable to stand up straight. When searched, Ofc. Nelson smelled alcohol and urine. A field sobriety tests was not conducted because Speights could not stand upright on her own.

When questioned, Speights confirmed the Ford parked outside was hers but denied driving or being inside her vehicle.   Speights claimed to have been home all day but officers did not confirm her claim or if anyone else had access to the vehicle.

Speights was detained, her vehicle impounded, and transported to the police station for suspected driving under the influence. Officer Nelson secured a search warrant to obtain blood and urine samples which revealed a blood alcohol content of 0.17 and she was charged with DUI.

Officers based the DUI charge on the warm engine compartment as evidence that the vehicle has been operational recently. Neither Officer had seen Speights operate the vehicle and Speights did not claim to have driven while intoxicated or driven that day. Speights filed multiple motions to suppress evidence of her vehicle’s temperature. Speights argued that the touch to the hood of her vehicle was a trespass on her property for the purpose of obtaining information, making it a search under the Fourth Amendment. She asserted that the officers did not have probable cause for this warrantless search. The State argued that Speights had no reasonable expectation of privacy because the vehicle was parked in a shared community area. 

The trial court ultimately denied the motion, however, the court found that when the officers touched Speights’s vehicle they had committed a trespass under Utah’s common law. The court determined that the trespass was “reasonable,” it did not offend the Fourth Amendment.

The Katz v. United States Test

Upon appeal, the court applied US v. Jones as a measure of the trespass upon Speight’s vehicle.  In United States v. Jones, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the government conducted an unconstitutional search when officers attached a GPS device to the underbody of the defendant’s vehicle without a warrant. 

The Court determined that under Jones, the officers attaching a GPS device the exterior of a vehicle would be considered a search if it amounted to a trespass for the purpose of obtaining information and struggled with the idea of “the nature of the trespass,” the “expectation of privacy,” and “the impact of the trespass.” The appeal court noted that warrantless searches are “presumptively unreasonable,” per Katz v. United States (1967), so regardless of the nature, expectation or impact, the touch of the vehicle was not allowed.

Katz is known as a wiretap / electronic eavesdropping case that resulted in the Katz Test: Trespass + Obtaining Information = Warrantless Search.

Search Warrant Exceptions: Automobile Exception

The court concluded that the automobile exception applied to this situation. Carroll v. United States, (1925) excuses warrantless searches of automobiles where it is not practicable to secure a warrant because the vehicle can be quickly moved.  

The Court’s Conclusion

After examining the Katz reasonable-expectation-of-privacy analysis and the Jones trespass analysis, the court did not make a final decision about a momentary touch to the exterior of a vehicle to obtain information constituting a search under United States v. Jones (2012). Instead, the court deferred to the automobile exception.

Moving forward

The State v. Speights has taught law enforcement to be aware of how seemingly reasonable actions can be warrantless searches.  While I can’t know what exactly the officers were thinking, I understand their reasoning.  What right to privacy does an inanimate object, that is in public, really have?  How would a search warrant have remedied this situation? Even if you had a search warrant, how could a patrol officer collect evidence of a vehicle being warm?  Although the court side stepped the United States v. Jones issue, Jones could have been the deciding factor in this matter.   A trespass upon a person or their property + obtaining information relevant to the investigation = a warrantless search.  Moving forward law enforcement officers should consider the Jones test and the use of search warrants or search warrant exceptions to collect the evidence they need.