In State v. MacDicken, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that police did not violate Abraham MacDicken’s federal or state constitutional rights by searching a laptop bag and rolling duffle bag without a warrant after he was arrested. The Court held that the bags were immediately associated with MacDicken at the time of his arrest and therefore properly included in the search incident to arrest of MacDicken’s person. In so holding, the Court extended its recent decision in State v. Byrd to reach beyond hand carry items like a purse or laptop bag to rolling luggage.  Therefore, police in Washington do not need a warrant to search anything an arrested person was moving with his or her own strength at the time of arrest.

Background: Police arrested MacDicken on suspicion of robbery. At the time of arrest, MacDicken was carrying a laptop bag and pushing a rolling duffle believed to belong to one of the robbery victims. After handcuffing MacDicken, the arresting officers moved the bags a car’s length away and searched them, discovering a gun and stolen items in the laptop bag. At trial, MacDicken moved to suppress the discovered items on grounds that the search violated his Washington state constitutional right to privacy and Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. The motion was denied, the evidence admitted and MacDicken convicted. MacDicken appealed and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Analysis: In a short 7-justice majority opinion drafted by Justice Owens, the Court ruled that this case was controlled by its holding in State v. Byrd that hand-carried items are part of a person and therefore properly subject to search incident to arrest. The court found no difference between a woman’s purse, as in Byrd, or a laptop bag or rolling duffel here. All may be so closely associated with the person at the time of arrest that the police may search the bags even after the person is secured and separated from the bags. The Court noted that no challenged evidence was in the rolling duffle, but extended its holding to that bag even though it was not carried by MacDicken.

Dissent: Justice Gordon McCloud, who did not participate in the decision in State v. Byrd, wrote a dissent arguing that the emerging rule permitting luggage searches conflicts with United States Supreme Court precedent. The dissent would examine instead whether the luggage was in the arresting officer’s exclusive control or whether MacDicken could have reached the bags to determine whether the warrantless search was permitted under the Fourth Amendment.

Commentary: As long as State v. Byrd remains good law, there is no principled reason that the rule should allow searches of purses but not laptop bags as incidents to arrest.  A distinction between the types of bag might very well have created a gender disparity between women and men based on the categorization of their handbag. However, the Byrd rule fits more uneasily on rolling duffels, which are generally not carried and are not closely identified with the person pushing them.  Washington’s rule appears to be that anything carried or pushed by the person’s own power at the time of arrest may be included in a warantless search of the person incident to arrest.

However, a number of unsettled questions remain.  It is not clear whether warrantless searches incident to arrest are now permissible for all items near an arrestee or whether there is some as of yet unannounced limit to the Byrd/MacDicken rule. Additionally, it is uncertain whether the holding would have been modified had the non-arrested owner of the duffel objected to the search. Further decisions by the state or United States supreme courts will be helpful in settling the scope of this new exception to Washingtonians’ right to privacy and freedom from warrantless searches.