United States v. Lao, No. 20-1111 (7th Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
During heavy snow, Lieutenant McAuly approached a car that was far off the roadway. Lao lowered the driver's window and stated that a tow truck was on its way. According to McAuly, Lao displayed nervousness and was acting as though he wanted McAuly to leave while speaking sharply to his passenger, Chang. Their driver’s licenses revealed extensive recent felony criminal histories. Both were under supervised release for methamphetamine convictions.
Both consented to pat-down searches. McAuly discovered that under her shirt Chang was carrying a locked, portable gun safe. Chang denied both ownership of the safe and knowledge of its contents. Through the car windows, McAuly saw a razor blade and a piece of cardboard that he associated with dividing drugs. Wisconsin Act 79 authorizes an officer, without consent, a warrant, or probable cause, to search any property under the control of a person who is under court supervision if the officer has a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. McAuly found the key, opened the gun safe, and found what was determined to be 75.6 grams of methamphetamine and a digital scale. A later search revealed a firearm and ammunition. After receiving Miranda warnings, Chang declared that everything in the safe belonged to her, although she was unable to describe its contents. Both were charged with possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine. Lao was also charged as a felon in possession of a firearm.
The Seventh Circuit affirmed the denials of the defendants’ motion to suppress. Although the officer’s hunch alone was not sufficient justification for the seizure, other factors provided the reasonable suspicion necessary. Chang’s statements did not fall within any hearsay exception and could not be admitted if Chang chose to invoke her Fifth Amendment right not to testify.