Having a visible sawed-off shotgun in your vehicle is enough to trigger a warrantless search and seizure. In the recent 6th Circuit Court of Appeals case of U.S. v. Carmack, 09-5819 (6th Cir. 6-7-2011), the Defendant triggered a federal investigation after he sent a counterfeit postal money order to a company that sells law enforcement items. Federal investigators obtained a warrant to search his home for items related to the creation and use of counterfeit postal money orders. On the way into the home, a partially covered sawed-off shotgun was observed in a vehicle parked outside.
Though the search warrant only specified a search of the residence and specifically sought items related to the counterfeit money order investigation, law enforcement officers seized the shotgun from the vehicle. The Defendant eventually pled guilty to possession of an unregistered short-barrel shotgun (in addition to other charges), reserving the right to appeal the admissibility of the weapon, as an unlawful search and seizure.
There was dispute as to the location of the vehicle, which was on private property. The government witnesses said it was 20-25 feet from the home and law enforcement officers had to walk past it to get in the home to execute the warrant. A defense witness said the vehicle was more than 140 feet away. The district court accredited the testimony of the law enforcement officers and the 6th Circuit relied on that finding. The Court concluded 1) law enforcement officers were legally on the property to execute the search warrant for the home; 2) the shotgun was in plain view in the backseat of a vehicle on the property; and 3) the short length of the barrel of the shotgun was intrinsically suspicious and created probable cause to seize it without a warrant. The Court supported its decision with other cases which had also held that a sawed-off shotgun is intrinsically incriminating.
For more information on when a warrantless search and seizure may be considered constitutionally reasonable, contact Hindman & Associates.