W&M Clinic Victory in Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals

On August 23, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court’s finding in favor of appellee Larry Walker, a client of the William & Mary Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic. Concluding that the district court did not clearly err in its finding that Walker did not consent to a search of his rental vehicle, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to suppress the evidence found in the subsequent warrantless search as fruits of an illegal search. The opinion in the case, United States v. Walker, can be read here.

Walker rented a car to drive from Connecticut to Texas for a family event. He was a passenger in the car on the way back to Connecticut when an officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, pulled the car over for having a tinted license plate cover, which the officer incorrectly believed to be illegal. During the stop, the officer asked the driver to provide his driver’s license and insurance verification and to exit the vehicle. The officer also requested the rental agreement from Walker; the officer held onto these documents for the duration of the stop. Despite the fact that the officer was informed that Walker had rented the carand thus would need to be the one to consent to a search of the carthe officer instead sought consent from the driver, out of earshot of Walker and the other passenger in the car. After obtaining consent from the driver, the officer questioned the other passenger, ordered him out of the car, and frisked him. The officer then ordered Walker out of the car and told him that the driver had already consented to a search. Walker acquiesced to this show of authority, and the officer subsequently searched the car.

The district court granted Walker’s motion to suppress the subsequently seized evidence, finding that Walker had not voluntarily consented to the search and that, therefore, the warrantless search violated the Fourth Amendment. The court evaluated the voluntariness of Walker’s consent based on the totality of the circumstances, weighing six “non-exclusive relevant factors”: (1) the voluntariness of the custodial status; (2) the presence of coercive police procedures; (3) the extent and level of the defendant’s cooperation with the police; (4) the defendant’s awareness of his right to refuse to consent; (5) the defendant’s education and intelligence; and, (6) the defendant’s belief that incriminating evidence would be found.

The district court found that the voluntariness of the custody, the presence of coercive police procedures, and the officer’s failure to inform Walker of his right to refuse consent all weighed against voluntariness. While Walker was cooperative throughout the encounter (a factor that weighed in favor of a finding that the consent was voluntary), Walker’s education only marginally weighed in favor of the government. Thus, after a review of the totality of the circumstances, the district court concluded that Walker did not voluntarily consent to a search.

On appeal, the government argued that the district court clearly erred in its finding; the government asserted that all six relevant factors for the voluntariness determination weighed in favor of voluntariness. The Fifth Circuit disagreed with the government’s assertion and affirmed the district court’s decision.

Katlyn Moseley J.D. ’17 argued the case with the support of Hillary Dang ’17. Moseley and Dang were primarily responsible for the briefing. Students in the clinic practice under the supervision of Adjunct Professor Tillman J. Breckenridge, a partner at Bailey & Glasser LLP and director of the Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic.

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