Contents Of A Woman’s Purse, Including Pills, A Pill Bottle And A Keychain, Spilled Out On A  Table Top

Sept. 14, 2022 – A police officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he opened a small canister taken from the purse of a woman who had been detained for shoplifting, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals has ruled.

In State v. Meisenhelder, 2021AP708 (June 15, 2022), the Court of Appeals District II held that because the police officer had probable cause to arrest the woman for shoplifting, the search of the canister was a lawful search incident to arrest.

Little Purple Canister

An employee at a Walmart in Appleton accused Catti Meisenhelder of shoplifting in July 2019.

Jeff M. Brown
Jeff M. Brown is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by
email or by phone at (608) 250-6126.

When the police arrived at the store, they found Meisenhelder and several Walmart employees in the store’s loss prevention office, where the employees had detained Meisenhelder.

One of the employees told the police that Meisenhelder had placed a bottle of mouthwash and eyeliner in her purse and tried to leave the store without paying for them. When the police officers entered the office, both items were on a desk.

When the police officers asked to search Meisenhelder’s purse for additional stolen items, she consented. Inside the purse, one of the officers found Meisenhelder’s keychain.

Attached to the keychain was an opaque purple canister about the size of a 12-guage shotgun shell or a tube of lipstick. The police officer unscrewed the canister’s cap and discovered inside the canister a bag that contained what appeared to be methamphetamine. 

After one of the police officers read Meisenhelder her Miranda rights, she said she thought the substance in the bag was methamphetamine. The officers arrested Meisenhelder.

The Calumet County District Attorney charged Meisenhelder with misdemeanor retail theft, possession of methamphetamine, and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Plea Bargain and Probation

Meisenhelder filed a motion to suppress both the substance found in the canister and the statements she made to the police officers after they discovered the substance.

The circuit court ruled that the search was a search incident to lawful arrest and denied the motion.

Meisenhelder agreed to plead no contest to the possession charge and allow the other charges to be read in. The circuit court placed Meisenhelder on probation for 18 months.

Meisenhelder appealed.

Search Incident to Arrest

In an opinion written for a three-judge panel, Judge Shelley Grogan explained that a warrantless search does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizures if it falls within a recognized exception to the warrant requirement.

One such exception, Grogan noted, was a search incident to a lawful arrest. That exception, Grogan pointed out, allows a police officer to search not only an arrestee’s person, but the area reachable by the arrestee.

Additionally, Grogan explained, a search incident to lawful arrest may occur before an arrest is made, as long as it occurs after a police officer has formed probable cause to make an arrest.

SuttonNot On Point

Meisenhelder argued that under a 2011 Wisconsin Court of Appeals case, State v. Sutton, 2012 WI App 7, 808 N.W.2d 411, the search of the canister was unlawful.

In Sutton, the court of appeals held that the warrantless search of two opaque containers discovered in the defendant’s car was illegal.

While it was reasonable for the police officers to search the car to make sure it contained no weapons, the court held that the search of the containers exceeded the scope of the search because each was too small to contain a weapon.

But Sutton wasn’t on point, Judge Grogan concluded, for two reasons: 1) the search in Sutton wasn’t a search incident to a lawful arrest; and 2) was driven by the concern that the car contained a weapon.

“When the officers found the cylinders in the car’s map pocket, the analysis shifted to the plain-view exception and whether probable cause existed to reasonably believe that the [canisters] ‘were connected to ‘criminal activity,’” Judge Grogan wrote.

Purse Was Within Reach

Grogan explained that the search of Meisenhelder’s canister met the requirements for a search incident to a lawful arrest.

“It is of no import that the probable cause for the retail theft arrest also led to drug-related charges being filed,” Judge Grogan wrote. “The search-incident-to-arrest exception permitted the police to search both Meisenhelder’s person and objects within her reach.”

Grogan explained that a review of the police officers’ bodycam revealed that Meisenhelder’s purse was within her reach during the time she was detained in the store’s loss prevention office.

“Meisenhelder was not handcuffed while the officer searched her purse, and she was located within reaching distance of her purse in Walmart’s very small loss prevention office,” Judge Grogan wrote.

Probable Cause Arose Before Search

The police officers had probable cause to arrest Meisenhelder before the search, Grogan explained, because 1) Meisenhelder had concealed items in her purse and tried to leave without paying for them and 2) the canister could be used to hide various small items.

“We are further not convinced that the presence of four officers in the loss prevention office with Meisenhelder somehow negated Meisenhelder’s ability to reach her purse,” Grogan wrote.