A Vermont state trooper violated the constitutional rights of a motorist when he read a letter he discovered after the motorist consented to a search of the vehicle, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said March 6.

The circuit, however, found that the trooper was entitled to qualified immunity because it had not ruled until March 6 that such a search was intrusive based on what a "reasonable person" would understand consent allowed.

The panel’s ruling in Winfield v. Trottier reversed a determination by U.S. District Judge Christina Reiss of the District of Vermont that had found Vermont State Trooper Daniel Trottier’s letter-reading in violation of the Fourth Amendment rights of the motorist and that the officer was not shielded by qualified immunity.

The question of an officer’s entitlement to qualified immunity rests on whether his actions were "objectively legally reasonable in light of the legal rules that were clearly established at the time it was taken," wrote Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs for the circuit panel, quoting X-Men Security v. Pataki.

By that standard, it was not "clearly established" that Trottier had violated the rights of Marie Winfield when he made the May 26, 2007, stop on Interstate 89 in Vermont, Jacobs said.

The "contours" of the right that Trottier violated must be "sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand what he is doing violates that right," Jacobs wrote, citing Davis v. Scherer. "The right at issue is properly stated as follows: It is a Fourth Amendment violation when a police officer reads a suspect’s private papers, the text of which is not in plain view, while conducting a search authorized solely by the suspect’s generalized consent to search the area in which the papers are found. No prior case in the Second Circuit has so held."

The panel concluded that Trottier’s actions overstepped the bounds of what the motorist reasonably understood she was consenting to when allowing the search.

According to the ruling, Trottier told Winfield his interest in the contents of her car was "piqued" because she appeared to be acting nervously when he pulled her over for speeding and her passenger, her son, Jason Winfield, did not make eye contact with the trooper.

"There’s nothing in there I should know about is there?" the court quoted Trottier as asking Marie Winfield when he had her step out of the car. "No guns or money?"

Winfield replied, "You can look if you want."

Later in the same conversation, Winfield replied, "Be my guest" and, "You can look" to other queries by Trottier about searching the car. She offered several times to open the trunk for the officer.

Trottier found a letter "addressed either to or from a court" in the backseat of the car and he read what was inside. It contained a court document pertaining to the arrest of Winfield’s husband "for possession" and a letter Winfield had written to a judge.

Finding nothing else of interest, Trottier cited Winfield for speeding and allowed her to go. The mother and son subsequently sued for a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights.

The Second Circuit noted that when motorists consent to a search of their vehicles, they can expect that "readily-opened, closed containers discovered inside the car will be opened and examined," quoting United States v. Snow.

Winfield should have expected that the consented-to search could cover not only guns or money, but other contraband such as drugs, according to the court.

However, "reading a person’s personal mail is a far greater intrusion than a search for contraband because it can invade a person’s thoughts," Jacobs wrote. "Given this greater intrusion, the typical reasonable person would not assume that consent to a general search of a car for contraband would include consent to read personal papers. Once Trottier opened the envelope and discovered neither large sums of money nor contraband, he should have moved on to search the rest of the car. Trottier exceeded the scope of Winfield’s consent when he read the letter."

The court did not accept Trottier’s argument that he read the letter because he thought it might contain evidence of a parole or probation violation.

The court said that "conceivable rationale" for reading the letter from the court was akin to reading "love letters for evidence of statutory rape, or brokerage receipts for evidence of insider trading."

Jacobs continued, "The issue is whether a reasonable person would believe that the consent given by Winfield authorized such a search for such a purpose. We think not. And Trottier cites no persuasive authority in his support."

Judges Rosemary Pooler and Peter Hall joined in the ruling.

Michael Kimberly of Mayer Brown in Washington, D.C., represented Marie and Jason Winfield pro bono in the litigation before the Second Circuit.

"In some ways what the court did, we think, is right," Kimberly said March 6 in an interview. "They found that the Winfields’ constitutional rights were violated, that an objective person would have understood that consent did not extend to the letter. That seems to us entirely inconsistent with the subsequent holding that a reasonable officer would not have understood that the consent would not have applied to the opening of the mail sitting on the backseat of the car."

Kimberly said he was considering the possibility of petitioning the Second Circuit to rehear the matter en banc.

Jana Brown, an assistant Vermont attorney general who argued the case for the state along with Assistant Attorney General Megan Shafritz, said her office was "pleased" with the ruling March 6.

"Essentially, our office felt the court correctly found that Trooper Trottier was entitled to qualified immunity," Brown said.

Joel Stashenko is a reporter for the New York Law Journal, a Legal affiliate.