Gun Safes Are Searchable

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In State v. Witkowski, the WA Court of Appeals held that a police search warrant for firearms located in a residence allows officers to search a locked gun safe.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On October 27, 2015, Deputy Martin Zurfluh obtained a search warrant to search the Respondents’ property, including their residence, for evidence of possession of stolen property and utility theft. The search warrant was limited to a stolen power meter and its accessories. An arrest warrant for Witkowski was also issued.

On October 29, officers executed the search and arrest warrants. After this search, Deputy Zurfluh requested an addendum to the search warrant. In his affidavit, Deputy Zurfluh explained that after entering the Respondents’ residence, police found drug paraphernalia, ammunition, one locked gun safe, one unlocked gun safe, a rifle case, and surveillance cameras. Deputy Zurfluh knew that the Respondents were felons and were prohibited from possessing firearms or ammunition.

The search warrant addendum authorized police to search at the Respondents’ street address for evidence of unlawful possession of a firearm, identity theft, unlawful possession of a controlled substance, and unlawful use of drug paraphernalia. The warrant addendum defined the area to be searched for this evidence as the main residence, a shed, and any vehicles and outbuildings at the street address.

The addendum authorized the seizure of evidence including,

  1. firearms, firearms parts, and accessories, including but not limited to rifles, shotguns, handguns, ammunition, scopes, cases, cleaning kits, and holsters
  2. Surveillance Systems used or intended to be used in the furtherance of any of the above listed crimes.
  3. Any item used as a container for #1.

Notably, the addendum did not identify either of the gun safes as items to be seized.

When executing the warrant addendum, officers opened the locked gun safe. They found 11 loaded rifles and shotguns with their serial numbers filed off, a handgun, a police scanner, a large quantity of cash, ammunition, and cameras.

After the search, the State charged Respondents with numerous counts including first degree unlawful possession of a firearm. Witkowski was additionally charged with seven counts of possession of a stolen firearm.

The superior court suppressed the evidence found inside the gun safes under the Fourth Amendment. It ruled that the addendum to the warrant did not include the gun safes or containers for firearms and that gun safes are not “personal effects,” so that the search of the safes did not fall within the scope of the search warrant.

The superior court later denied the State’s motions for reconsideration. The State filed motions for discretionary review to the Court of Appeals.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court reasoned that a lawful search of fixed premises generally extends to the entire area in which the object of the search may be found and is not limited by the possibility that separate acts of entry or opening may be required to complete the search. Thus, a warrant that authorizes an officer to search a home for illegal weapons also provides authority to open closets, chests, drawers, and containers in which the weapon might be found.

“Here, the warrant addendum listed the objects of the search as including firearms and firearm accessories,” said the Court of Appeals.  “And Deputy Zurfluh testified that he suspected the close-to refrigerator-sized, locked safe contained firearms because he had found ammunition in the home.” The Court emphasized that Deputy Zurfluh also testified that in his experience, a tall, upright safe would be used to store guns. “Under the rule expressed in United State v. Ross, because one object of the search was “firearms,” the premises search warrant addendum authorized the search of the locked gun safe as an area in which the object of the search was likely to be found.”

Additionally, the Court of Appeals emphasized that numerous Washington cases have also expressed the Fourth Amendment rule that a premises warrant authorizes a search of containers in a residence that could reasonably contain the object of the search.

“In sum, federal and state precedent applying the Fourth Amendment show that when police execute a premises warrant, they are authorized to search locked containers where the objects of the search are likely to be found. Thus, the superior court here erred under the Fourth Amendment when it suppressed the evidence in the locked gun safe as exceeding the scope of the warrant addendum.”

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed the Superior Court’s suppression of the evidence and remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges involving searches of persons, vehicles and property. Hiring competent criminal defense counsel is the first step toward getting charges reduced or dismissed.