Moran, the defendant in this criminal case, was being held in jail on an unrelated charge.  On a recorded call with his sister (Alysha), she told Moran that her storage unit had to be emptied. Moran asked her to move the black plastic garbage bags that he had placed in her storage unit. This caught the attention of a detective who went to Alysha’s apartment and obtained consent to search her apartment, her car, and her storage unit. She did not place any limitations on the consent. When she opened the storage unit, Alysha told them the black garbage bags were not hers. She then left to pick up her child. While she was gone, the officers removed and searched the bags finding fentanyl. Moran was charged with possession with intent to distribute under federal law. Moran sought to have the evidence excluded, claiming a reasonable expectation of privacy in the bags. The District Court denied the motion, first holding that Alysha had actual authority to consent to the search, and then, upon rehearing, determined Alysha had apparent authority to grant consent to search.  Moran appealed.

On appeal, the government argued that Alysha had actual authority to grant consent to search. The Eighth Circuit disagreed.  Citing United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164 (1974) the court noted that a third party may consent to search another’s effects if the third party possesses “common authority” over the effects sought to be inspected.  In order to show this common authority, the government must show that the third party had “mutual use” of those effects creating a shared privacy interest. The court further observed that there was no evidence that, when Moran left his bags at Alysha’s, he told her that she could open the bags and gain access to what was inside. The court held that the fact that Alysha had access to the bags in her storage unit did not, by itself, establish her mutual use of whatever they contained.  Furthermore, the telephone conversations between Moran and Alysha did not establish common authority. Accordingly, the court held there was no actual authority on the part of Alysha to grant consent to search the bags.

The First Circuit next turned to the issue as to whether Alysha had apparent authority to grant consent to search the bags. Citing Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177 (1990) the court noted the test is whether “the facts available to the officers at the moment of the search would warrant an officer of reasonable caution in the belief that the consenting party had authority” to consent, regardless of whether the consenting party actually did have such authority.  The court noted that Alysha expressly told the officers that the bags in the storage unit were not hers. This created an ambiguity as to whether Alysha had mutual use of the bags.  The court held that it was the government’s burden to establish that a third party had authority to consent to a search and that this burden could not be met if agents, faced with an ambiguous situation, nevertheless proceed without making further inquiry. The government made no such further inquiry in this case and the previous telephone calls were not sufficient to overcome the ambiguity. Therefore, the court ruled the government did not meet its burden to resolve the ambiguity and reversed the District Court’s denial of the motion to suppress and vacated the conviction.

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