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4th Circuit Court Briefs

United States v. Currence (05-4894)

Currence was indicted for possession of cocaine base with intent to distribute and possession of cocaine base with intent to distribute in a school zone. Currence moved to suppress the drug evidence seized from inside the handlebars of his bicycle. The district court granted Currence's motion, finding that the automobile exception to the warrant requirement should not be extended to the bicycle and that the search was not authorized as "incident to" a lawful arrest. The government appeals this ruling.

According to the government, a confidential informant notified Richmond, Virginia, police detectives that a man known as "Kareem" had conducted a drug deal at a certain intersection in Richmond. The informant described Kareem's physical appearance and stated that he was riding a blue mountain bicycle. When the police responded, they found Currence, who met the description provided by the informant. Detective Bates asked Currence to step off his bicycle and asked if he could talk to him and pat him down for safety reasons. According to the government, Currence agreed. The frisk revealed a large amount of currency. Currence provided the police with his identification and was placed in handcuffs while the police checked for any outstanding warrants. The police then discovered that Currence was wanted on a misdemeanor charge. Detective Bates then asked the other detective, Bohannon, to search the mountain bike, which was located next to Currence and the officers. Detective Bohannon testified that he knew from his training and experience that drug dealers conceal drugs inside the hollow places of handlebars. Detective Bohannon removed the black rubber end cap from the right handlebar and inside discovered a knotted plastic bag containing crack cocaine.

The government first argues that the search of the bicycle handlebars immediately following the arrest was justified as a search incident to that arrest. The government contends that the holding of New York v. Belton, 454 U. S. 454 (1981), that police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle incident to a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of the vehicle, should be extended to permit the search of the inside of the handlebars. The government argues that the handlebars were in actual physical contact with Currence, were not locked, and were more like a steering wheel or a glove compartment, which could be searched under Belton, than a locked trunk outside Currence's immediate control, a search of which is not permissible under Belton. Currence contends the trial court correctly ruled that the holding of Belton should not be extended to authorize the search of the handlebars.

The government alternatively argues that seizure of the drugs was permissible under the vehicle exception to the warrant requirement because the bicycle was mobile and could easily be moved, and the police officers had probable cause to believe that drugs were located in the handlebars. Currence argues that probable cause did not exist to search the bicycle.