Category Archives: Common Authority Searches

Common Authority to Search

Image result for police search car

In State v. Vanhollebeke, the WA Supreme Court held that a driver’s refusal to consent to the search of his or her vehicle must generally be respected. But where the facts reasonably raise a significant question about whether the driver had any legitimate claim to the vehicle at all, the police may contact the absent owner and then get that owner’s consent to search instead.


Defendant Justin Vanhollebeke drove his truck the wrong way down a one-way street. Not surprisingly, an officer stopped him. Vanhollebeke ignored the officer’s command to stay in the vehicle, got out and locked the vehicle behind him, left a punched out ignition and apparent drug paraphernalia behind in plain view of the police, and had no key. The police asked Vanhollebeke for consent to search the vehicle. Vanhollebeke refused. A police officer then contacted the truck’s owner, received the absent owner’s consent and a key to search, and then returned to search the vehicle.

Vanhollebeke was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm found in the truck.

Vanhollebeke moved to suppress the fruits of the search, arguing that the warrantless search was unconstitutional. The trial court denied the motion, reasoning that there’s a reduced expectation of privacy in a borrowed vehicle. The trial court made no explicit findings of fact regarding the officers’ motivation for contacting Mr. Casteel. Vanhollebeke was found guilty, sentenced to 34 months confinement, and assessed fees of $1,380. He appealed on the issue of whether the search was constitutional.


The WA Supreme Court reasoned that warrantless searches are presumptively unconstitutional, unless they fit within one of the few, narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement. Under both the Washington and United States Constitutions, warrantless searches are per se unreasonable. However, there are a few jealously and carefully drawn exceptions to the warrant requirement.

“One of those exceptions is for consent, and consent is the exception at issue here,” said the Court. It elaborated that consent to a search establishes the validity of that search if the person giving consent has the authority to so consent. Furthermore, the Court reasoned that while the driver of an absent owner’s vehicle does not ordinarily assume the risk that the absent owner will consent to a search, the driver does assume that risk where the facts reasonably suggest it is stolen.

Next, the Court adopted and applied the Fourth Amendment standard for valid third-party consent to a search is a two-part test: (1) Did the consenting party have authority to permit the search in his own right? And if so, (2) did the defendant assume the risk that the third party would permit a search? Both this Court and the United States Supreme Court refer to this test as the “common authority rule.” In short, the common authority rule refers to a legal principle that permits a person to give consent to a law officer for the purpose of searching another person’s property. The common-authority rule provides for searches without warrant. The principle can be applied only when both parties have access or control to the same property.

The Consenting Party Had Authority to Permit the Search.

The WA Supreme Court held that here, the consenting party, the owner, clearly had the authority to consent to the search in his own right. “There is no dispute that the first part of the test is satisfied in this case as the truck’s owner, Casteel, could clearly consent to its search in his own right,” said the Court. “The driver of a car owned by another does not ordinarily assume the risk that the owner will consent to a search.”

Vanhollebeke, by Borrowing Casteel’s truck, Assumed the Risk that Casteel Might Allow Others to Search It.

The Court held that the evidence in this case gave the officers good reasons to believe the vehicle was stolen. This driver, without a key or identification and with a punched out ignition clearly visible, therefore assumed the risk that the police would contact the absent owner and seek consent to search.

The Court elaborated that this reasoning is consistent with the reasoning in the United States Supreme Court’s “common authority” cases that legitimation of expectations of privacy by law must have a source outside of the Fourth Amendment, either by reference to concepts of real or personal property law or to understandings that are recognized and permitted by society.

“The search in this case did not violate the Fourth Amendment,” concluded the Court.

“Common Authority” Vehicle Searches

Image result for vehicle search

In State v. Vanhollebeke, the WA Court of Appeals Division III decided a vehicle owner’s consent to search overrode the driver’s express objections.

On the night of November 10, 2014, Sergeant Garza pulled the truck over that was facing the wrong way on a one-way street. Sergeant Garza got out of his patrol car and approached the truck. The defendant Mr. Vanhollebeke got out of the truck and started walking toward Sergeant Garza. Sergeant Garza ordered Mr. Vanhollebeke to get back in the truck. Mr. Vanhollebeke then said he had locked himself out of the truck. This unusual behavior made Sergeant Garza suspicious.

Dispatch advised that Mr. Vanhollebeke’s license was suspended. Dispatch also advised that Mr. Vanhollebeke was not the registered owner of the truck, and that the truck belonged to a man named Bill Casteel. Sergeant Garza’s plan at this point was to cite Mr. Vanhollebeke for driving with a suspended license and then release him.

However, another police officer noticed a glass pipe with a white crystal substance on it sitting in plain view near the dashboard, which he believed was drug paraphernalia. Also, the truck’s steering column was “punched,” which indicated the truck was stolen. The officers did not release Mr. Vanhollebeke and kept him in their custody.

The officers asked for permission to search the truck. Mr. Vanhollebeke refused. Sergeant Garza contacted Mr. Casteel, the actual owner of the truck, at Casteel’s home. Mr. Casteel told Deputy Barnes that Mr. Vanhollebeke had permission to use the truck. Casteel also gave police permission to search his truck and gave Deputy Barnes a key to it.

Deputy Barnes returned directly to the scene. He used the key to open the truck and began to search it. He looked under the driver’s seat and saw a revolver. The glass pipe tested positive for methamphetamine. The officers confirmed through dispatch that Mr. Vanhollebeke had a prior felony conviction.

The State charged Mr. Vanhollebeke with first degree unlawful possession of a firearm. Mr. Vanhollebeke argued a CrR 3.6 motion to suppress the physical evidence on the grounds that he had refused to give the officers consent to search the truck and also that the stop’s length and scope were unreasonable. However, the trial court admitted the evidence and denied Mr. Vanhollebeke’s motion to suppress. The jury convicted Mr. Vanhollebeke.

Vanhollebeke appealed on the issue of whether Mr. Casteel’s consent overrode Mr. Vanhollebeke’s express objection to search.

The Court of Appeals upheld the search. It reasoned that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees people the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Warrantless searches are generally illegal unless they fall within one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement. However, one exception is consent to search by a person with authority over the place or thing to be searched. This exception includes consent given by a third person, other than the defendant.

The court further reasoned that to grant valid consent, the third party must have common authority over the place or thing to be searched. The court explained that common authority does not mean that the third party has a mere property interest in the place or thing being searched. Rather, to establish lawful consent by virtue of common authority, (1) a consenting party must be able to permit the search in his own right, and (2) it must be reasonable to find that the defendant has assumed the risk that a co-occupant might permit a search.

The court decided Mr. Vanhollebeke’s right to use the truck was dependent on the owner’s unrevoked permission:

“Here, Mr. Vanhollebeke had the actual right to exclude all others from the truck except for Mr. Casteel. For this reason, Mr. Vanhollebeke did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy if Mr. Casteel wanted to search his own truck or allow another person to do so.”

With that, the Court concluded Mr. Casteel’s consent to search his truck overrode Mr. Vanhollebeke’s objection. Therefore, the search did not violate Mr. Vanhollebeke’s reasonable expectation of privacy and the trial court did not err in denying Mr. Vanhollebeke’s CrR 3.6 motion to suppress. Vanhollebeke’s conviction was affirmed.

My opinion? Common authority search issues don’t happen very often in criminal defense. But when they do, it’s imperative to hire competent criminal defense who can leverage a strong motion to suppress the evidence and/or divide the “common parties” to the search. Perhaps the greatest lesson to learn is to simply avoid transporting illegal contraband in plain view within borrowed vehicles.