County Criminal Court:  CRIMINAL LAW – search and seizure – evidence – search of passenger’s purse unlawful – it was not reasonable for the deputy to assume that the driver had the apparent authority to consent to the passenger’s purse – passenger’s purse suggested individual ownership requiring consent before the search – suppression of contents of purse supported by the record – Order affirmed.  State v. Vantreese, No. 03-00076 APANO (Fla. 6th Cir. App. Ct. April 23, 2004).








vs.                                                                                            Appeal No. CRC 03-00076 APANO






Opinion filed ________________________


Appeal from Order on Motion to Suppress

Pinellas County Court

Judge Fred Bryson

Judge Sonny Im


Carrie L. Pilon, Esquire

Attorney for Appellant






            THIS CAUSE came before the Court on appeal, filed by the State of Florida (State), from the Order on Motion to Suppress (Order), entered September 5, 2003, in which the trial court granted the Defendant’s Motion to Suppress the contents of a purse belonging to the Appellee/Defendant, Melanie Vantreese (Vantreese).  Upon review of the State’s Brief, [1] the record, and being otherwise fully advised, the Court affirms the Order as set forth below.

            The record shows that on March 19, 2003, Deputy Christopher Wilkins, of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, initiated a traffic stop for an inoperable right taillight on a vehicle driven by Melissa Vantreese (driver), Vantreese’s sister.  Upon approach of the vehicle, Deputy Wilkins informed the driver why she had been stopped and requested a driver’s license from both women.  Deputy Wilkins noticed that there were two “bags” in between the driver and Vantreese.  The bags were back-to-back and equally accessible to both the driver and Vantreese.  Deputy Wilkins testified that “one bag was a cloth type bag with a drawstring top” and the other bag was “a green bag type carry bag.”

            Deputy Wilkins decided not to issue a citation, but asked to driver to come back to his vehicle for a verbal warning.  Deputy Wilkins then obtained consent from the driver to search the vehicle.  The driver walked back to the car with Deputy Wilkins and informed Vantreese of Deputy Wilkins’ intent to search the vehicle.  Vantreese exited the vehicle, taking nothing with her.  Deputy Wilkins did not obtain Vantreese’s consent, nor did Vantreese object, to the search of the green bag.  In searching the bag, Deputy Wilkins discovered a zip lock bag containing a “green leafy substance.”  Vantreese was arrested for possession of marijuana. 

            In the proceedings below, Judge Sonny Im initially denied Vantreese’s Motion to Suppress.    However, on July 2, 2003, Judge Im granted Vantreese’s Motion for Rehearing and, on July 18, 2003, the matter came before Judge Fred Bryson, sitting in for Judge Im.  After receiving testimony and evidence, Judge Bryson entered a detailed order granting Vantreese’s Motion to Suppress the contents of the green bag, characterized by the trial court as a “purse.” The trial court based its ruling on Brown v. State, 789 So.2d 1021 (Fla. 2d DCA 2001), in concluding that the driver did not have the apparent authority to consent to a search of her sister’s purse.

            The only issue raised by the State on appeal is whether the trial court misapplied Brown in determining that Deputy Wilkins search of Vantreese’s purse was unlawful. [2]   Initially, in addressing this issue, the Court reiterates the well-settled law that when reviewing a trial court’s ruling on a motion to suppress, the trial court’s application of the law to the factual findings is de novo, but the reviewing court must defer to the factual findings of the trial court that are supported by competent substantial evidence.  See Cillo v. State, 849 So.2d 353, 354 (Fla. 2d DCA 2003).  Further, the appellate court is to review the evidence and inferences to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the prevailing party.  See Rosenquist v. State, 769 So.2d 1051, 1052 (Fla. 2d DCA 2000).

            Accordingly, the Court finds that the trial court’s ruling must be sustained.  As set forth in Brown, the burden was on the State to demonstrate that the driver had common or apparent authority to consent to the search.  As explained in  Brown,

The search was valid only if the driver had the apparent authority to consent to the search of the fanny pack, either through the driver and passenger’s shared use or joint access to the fanny pack or because the circumstances gave rise to a reasonable belief that the driver had authority to consent to the search of the pack.  Thus, the narrow issue presented is whether an officer has a reasonable basis to conclude that a driver’s consent to search a car includes a search inside a passenger’s purse or fanny pack if the passenger leaves the item in the car when ordered by the police to get our [sic] of the car.  We hold that the officer must inquire of the passenger before searching inside such a purse or fanny pack.


            Thus, the key determination in this case is whether it was reasonable for Deputy Wilkins to assume that the driver had the apparent authority to consent to a search of the green bag or whether the green bag suggested individual ownership, such that there would be a significant expectation of privacy requiring Vantreese’s consent.  See id. at 1024.  As pointed out by the State, there are factual differences between this case and those in Brown.  In Brown, the driver was male and the officer observed the female passenger in possession of the fanny pack; hence, it was unreasonable for the officer to assume that driver had the apparent authority to consent to a search of the fanny pack.

            In this case, the two bags, or purses, were found together on the front seat of the car between the passenger, Vantreese, and the driver.  The trial court characterized the “bag” as a “purse,” implicitly finding that it suggested individual ownership, which required lawful consent to search.  Further, the trial court specifically concluded that Deputy Wilkins observed “two girls and two purses in the front seat” and that it was not reasonable for Deputy Wilkins to assume that both purses belong to the driver.  Compare with State v. Walton, 565 So.2d 381, 383 (Fla. 5th DCA 1990)(finding that if driver consents to search of car and its contents, officer can search entire vehicle, including all of its compartments and containers, where different ownership is not apparent or made apparent to officers conducting search).  Based on this record, the Court finds that the trial judge’s findings are supported by the evidence.  The Court will not substitute its judgment for that of the trial court.  See Gilbert v. State, 629 So.2d 957, 958 (Fla. 3d DCA 1993)(stating that should not substitute its judgment for that of the trial court, but rather, should defer to the trial court’s authority as fact-finder).

             It is therefore, 

            ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that the Order on Motion to Suppress is affirmed.

            DONE AND ORDERED in Chambers, at Clearwater, Pinellas County, Florida this ________ day of April 2004.



                                                                        DAVID A. DEMERS

                                                                        Circuit Judge





                                                                        ROBERT J. MORRIS, JR.

                                                                        Circuit Judge





                                                                        IRENE SULLIVAN

                                                                        Circuit Judge

Copies furnish to:


Judge Fred Bryson


Judge Sonny Im


Carrie L. Pilon, Assistant State Attorney


Melanie Vantreese

9084 Bryan Diary Road

Largo, FL  33777

[1] An Answer Brief was not filed.

[2] The State does not argue on appeal that it was error for the trial court to grant the motion for rehearing.