In U.S. v. Ostrum, the Seventh Circuit considered the question of standing in relation to a search of a stolen vehicle and safes inside the vehicle, and then applied the automobile exception to the warrantless search. Dylan Ostrum was charged with various crimes after a vehicle search revealed a gun and evidence of drug dealing inside a safe within the vehicle, and claimed that the search violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The Court held that Ostrum lacked standing to challenge the searches, and even if he had standing, the automobile exception would apply because the officers had probable cause to believe the vehicle contained contraband.

The Facts

While conducting a search pursuant to a valid warrant of Ricky Blythe’s home, officers found text messages between Blythe and Ostrum regarding past sales of methamphetamine and marijuana, which sparked interest into Ostrum. The investigation into Ostrum revealed that he had felony convictions for burglary and possession of marijuana and methamphetamine, and investigators learned from three confidential informants that Ostrum sold firearms and narcotics out of his home in Indiana. One informant also stated that Ostrum drove a Chrysler 300 sedan. Officers saw this vehicle outside of Ostrum’s home and ran the plates, which revealed the license plate was registered to Ostrum but did not correspond to the Chrysler.

Officers then obtained a search warrant for Ostrum’s home permitting the search and seizure of firearms, narcotics, and other drug distribution materials. The warrant also permitted officers to seize keys “relating to safe deposit boxes.” The search did not reveal many items, but Ostrum was present and willingly answered the officer’s questions. Ostrum admitted that he had methamphetamine, a gun from Blythe, and expected a delivery of drugs from Blythe the day of Blythe’s arrest. Ostrum also stated that he “got rid” of the drugs and guns after he learned of Blythe’s arrest. Ostrum was evasive when asked where and how he disposed of the contraband. Later, he confirmed that he took “pretty much everything” to his father’s house, including the Chrysler and safe. He gave the officers the keys to the Chrysler.

The officers soon found the Chrysler at a home near Ostrum’s father’s house. The homeowner gave consent for the officers to enter the property and conduct a “free air” dog sniff of the vehicle. The dog did not alert for the presence of drugs. Then, officers searched the Chrysler’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and learned that it was reported stolen several months ago by a car rental company. Their search of the vehicle revealed a loaded Glock 9mm pistol and matching ammunition, 513.5 grams of methamphetamine, around two pounds of marijuana, a digital scale, and what appeared to be a drug ledger. The items were inside a safe found in the vehicle. Ostrum was subsequently charged with conspiracy to possess with an intent to distribute methamphetamine, possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, possession with intent to distribute marijuana, and being a felon in possession.

Prior to trial, Ostrum moved to suppress the evidence found inside the Chrysler, arguing that it was the fruit of an illegal search, but did not request an evidentiary hearing. The district court denied the motion, finding: (1) Ostrum lacked standing to challenge the search because the car was stolen; (2) the search was valid under the automobile exception because officers had probable cause to believe it contained contraband; and (3) the search was otherwise permissible as an inventory search of a lawfully impounded vehicle. The case went to trial and Ostrum was convicted by a jury.

Ostrum subsequently appealed the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence, arguing that he had standing to challenge the search of the Chrysler and the safes, and neither the automobile nor inventory search exceptions justified the searches.

The Seventh Circuit’s Standing Analysis:

Under the Fourth Amendment, the question to determine an individual’s standing to challenge a search is whether a defendant possessed a “legitimate expectation of privacy in the premises” searched. Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128, 143 (1978). Ostrum asserted that he had an expectation of privacy in both the Chrysler and the safes. The Seventh Circuit Court evaluated each claim as follows:

II. The Stolen Chrysler

Under Seventh Circuit precedent, if Ostrum stole the car or knew it was stolen, he would not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in it or its contents, and would lack standing. Byrd v. United States, 584 U.S. 395 (2018). The issue for the Court is that Ostrum denied knowing the car was stolen. The Court has yet to consider whether the “unwitting driver of a stolen vehicle stands in the same Fourth Amendment position as a car thief.” But, it need not decide this question because Ostrum failed to offer evidence that he had a legitimate expectation of privacy. The burden is on the defendant to show that they had a legitimate expectation of privacy. United States v. Sawyer, 929 F.3d 497, 499 (7th Cir. 2019). Ostrum argued that because he claimed a possessory interest in the car, the burden shifted to the government to prove his knowledge the car was stolen. The Court disagreed because it has never held that merely claiming a possessory interest in a vehicle shifts the burden to the government to prove that the privacy interest is not legitimate. The burden was on Ostrum to prove he had a privacy interest in the car and because he failed to meet that burden, he could not challenge the search of the Chrysler.

II. The Safes in the Chrysler

Next, the Court evaluated whether Ostrum had standing to challenge the search of the safes that were found inside the stolen Chrysler. The Court explained that a person present in a vehicle, even without an expectation of privacy in the car itself, may be able to assert a privacy interest in containers located inside the vehicle. But, a “stolen car is not a safehouse that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable.” United States v. Hargrove, 647 F.2d 411, 412 (4th Cir. 1981). Namely, a person who is not in a stolen vehicle at the time of the search lacks an expectation of privacy in the containers inside the vehicle. Accordingly, Ostrum lacked standing to challenge the search of the safes.

Automobile Exception:

Even if Ostrum had standing to challenge the searches, his suppression argument still failed because the search of the vehicle and the safe fell within the automobile exception. Warrantless searches are unreasonable, subject to certain exceptions. United States v. Kizart, 967 F.3d 693, 695 (7th Cir. 2020). One of the exceptions is the automobile exception, which allows law enforcement officers to conduct a “warrantless search of a vehicle… so long as there is probable cause to believe it contains contraband or evidence of illegal activity.” United States v. Washburn, 383 F.3d 683, 641 (7th Cir. 2004) (citing Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925)). The exception to search the vehicle extends to all containers inside the vehicle if there is probable cause to believe the containers contain contraband or evidence. United States v. Hays, 90 F.4th 904, 907 (7th Cir. 2024) (citing California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565). Probable cause to search a vehicle under the automobile exception is based on a totality of the circumstances and officers can draw reasonable inferences from the facts based on their training and experience. United States v. Zahursky, 580 F.3d 515, 521 (7th Cir. 2009).

Here, the officers had probable cause to believe that the Chrysler contained contraband. The officers had already established probable cause to obtain a search warrant to search Ostrum’s home for guns and drugs. This shows that they had legitimate evidence connecting Ostrum with possible drugs and guns. Further, during the search, Ostrum told officers he “got rid” of his guns and drugs and moved “everything,” including the Chrysler and safes to his father’s house. Ostrum countered by arguing that law enforcement had no reason to think the evidence would be in the Chrysler, as opposed to anywhere else. The Court disagreed because Ostrum’s statements to the officers discussed the car, safes, and contraband together, which implied he used the Chrysler to move these items. Those statements combined with Ostrum’s misdirection of the car’s location gave officers good reason to believe the missing car, missing safes, and missing contraband would be together. Lastly, Ostrum claimed that the officers had no basis to think the safes were in the Chrysler. The Court explained that this argument is irrelevant because all that mattered is whether officers had probable cause to believe drugs and guns were in the car, which they did.

The case concluded with the Court addressing Ostrum’s final two arguments. First, Ostrum argued that when the dog failed to alert for the presence of drugs in the car, any probable cause that existed disappeared. The Court disagreed because the possibility of narcotics was not the only source of the officer’s probable cause. The officers had probable cause to believe that firearms may be present. Second, Ostrum argued that Collins v. Virgina applied, and that because the search of the Chrysler occurred on the curtilage of a home, the automobile exception did not justify the search. 584 U.S. 586, 596 (2018). The Court explained that Collins did not categorically prohibit warrantless searches of cars that are on any curtilage but forbids the use of the exception to justify an otherwise impermissible trespass. Id. There was no trespass here because the officers had the homeowner’s consent to enter the property. Accordingly, there was probable cause under the totality of the circumstances for officers to believe the Chrysler contained contraband. Thus, the searches of both the Chrysler and the safes fell within the automobile exception.

Authored by:

not pictured: Lily McKay