Police may seize a dashboard camera without a warrant after an accident

People v. Tran, 2019 WL 5958335 (Cal.App. 4 Dist.) (Cal.App. 4 Dist., 2019)

Background:

Robert Tran was convicted of reckless driving, in violation of Vehicle Code section 23103, subdivision (a) and was sentenced to three years’ probation with 30 days in custody.

Tran appealed the trial court’s denial of his pretrial motion to suppress evidence obtained from the warrantless search of his backpack and seizure of his dashboard camera. Tran claims exigent circumstances did not exist that would excuse law enforcement from first obtaining a warrant.

The Court of Appeal requested supplemental letter briefs on: Whether exigent circumstances allowed for the warrantless seizure of [Tran’s] dashboard camera under United States v. Place (1983) 462 U.S. 696, 103 S.Ct. 2637, 77 L.Ed.2d 110 [ (Place)

Tran’s motion to suppress

In November 2016, Tran, while driving, collided with a  motorcycle when his vehicle crossed a double yellow line on a sharp curve in the road. The  motorcycle rider suffered life threatening injuries.

Tran filed a motion under Penal Code section 1538.5 to suppress the search of his  backpack  and the seizure of the dashboard camera. At the hearing on the motion, California Highway Patrol Sergeant Brad Palmer testified that he observed tire friction marks on the roadway providing evidence that Tran had driven at a high rate of sped when he drifted into the other lane of traffic on a two-lane roadway as he attempted a very sharp right turn.

At the site of the accident, Officer Gilbert Ontiveros  told Palmer that Tran had removed a dashboard camera from his vehicle. Palmer testified that dashboard cameras are breakable and easily hidden. Moreover,  he thought he was investigating a potentially fatal collision caused by a reckless driver traveling at a high-speed.

Seizure of the backpack and dashboard camera

When Palmer contacted Tran at the scene, Tran had a backpack on the ground near him. Palmer initially asked Tran if he was okay. Then he asked him if he had a dashboard camera. Tran admitted he had one. Palmer tasked Tran if he had removed the camera from his vehicle, and Tran stated that he had. Palmer next asked Tran where the camera was.

Palmer explained that he asked this question because he was concerned about “exigent circumstances.” Palmer believed he “needed to get that dashboard camera because it had evidence, and [he] was concerned with the little SD cards that could be in it. It could be destroyed by putting your fingers in your pockets. It could be chucked. It could be stepped on.”

Tran told Palmer that he had the camera, and it was in his backpack. Palmer asked Tran if he had any weapons in his backpack. Tran told Palmer  that he had a “fixed-blade-type knife” in his backpack. Palmer then asked Tran to get the camera for him but to make sure he did not grab the knife. Although Tran eventually agreed to get the camera, Palmer described Tran as “very slow to” get the camera, and it appeared that he “didn’t really want to.”

Tran  removed the dashboard camera from his backpack.  Palmer said that he was going to seize the camera because it “ha[d] evidence of [Tran’s] driving.” Palmer explained that Tran “didn’t really want to give [the camera] to [him]” and asked about the sergeant’s authority to take the camera. Palmer warned him that if he did not turn over the camera he would be “obstructing this investigation.” Although Tran “kind of hemmed and hawed about it[,]” he eventually gave the camera to Palmer.

Palmer testified that he did not obtain a warrant because he feared the camera would be destroyed or removed before he could obtain one. Palmer gave the dashboard camera to Ontiveros and instructed him to obtain a search warrant for the contents of the dashboard camera before viewing the content on it. Three days later, a search warrant was obtained to view the contents of the camera. A warrant for Tran’s arrest was issued in March 2017, over four months after the accident.

The court denied the motion. Tran timely appealed.

Suppression of evidence

Federal  constitutional standards apply to review of suppression of evidence. (People v. Lenart (2004) 32 Cal.4th 1107, 1118; see Cal. Const., art. I, § 28, subd. (f)(2).) “In reviewing a trial court’s ruling on a motion to suppress evidence, we defer to that court’s factual findings, express or implied, if they are supported by substantial evidence. We exercise our independent judgment in determining whether, on the facts presented, the search or seizure was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” (Lenart, at p. 1119.)

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause ….” (U.S. Const., 4th Amend.; accord, Cal. Const., art. I, § 13.) Reasonableness “ ‘is measured in objective terms by examining the totality of the circumstances’ [citation], …” (People v. Robinson (2010) 47 Cal.4th 1104, 1120.) The burden is on the prosecution to provide some justification for the warrantless search or seizure. (People v. Williams (1999) 20 Cal.4th 119, 136.)

Seizure is less intrusive than a search

This issue here is not a search, but instead, a seizure. A seizure is “far less intrusive than a search.” (United States v. Payton (9th Cir. 2009) 573 F.3d 859, 863 (Payton).) A search implicates a person’s right of privacy but  a seizure only affects their right to possess the particular item in question. (Segura v. United States (1984) 468 U.S. 796, 806, 104 S.Ct. 3380, 82 L.Ed.2d 599 (Segura).) The police generally have greater latitude  in terms of conducting a warrantless seizure than they do in carrying out a warrantless search. The United States Supreme Court has “frequently approved warrantless seizures of property … for the time necessary to secure a warrant, where a warrantless search was either held to be or likely would have been impermissible.”

Warrantless seizure of a container permissible under exigent circumstances

In Place, the United States Supreme Court explained: “Where law enforcement authorities have probable cause to believe that a container holds contraband or evidence of a crime, but have not secured a warrant, the Court has interpreted the Amendment to permit seizure of the property, pending issuance of a warrant to examine its contents, if the exigencies of the circumstances demand it or some other recognized exception to the warrant requirement is present.” (Place, supra, 462 U.S. at p. 701, 103 S.Ct. 2637.)

Dashboard camera is like a container

The  dashboard camera is a type of container that contains digital images. Similar to  the luggage in Place, the camera was seized without a warrant, but searched after one was obtained. In this case, the Court found there was sufficient evidence that led Palmer to believe a crime had been committed and that exigent circumstances existed to seize Tran’s dashboard camera.

The trial court found that Palmer had reason to believe there was evidence on the dashboard camera and Tran might seek to destroy the camera or the camera’s SD card. We conclude substantial evidence supports that finding.

Palmer’s intent was on securing the camera to ensure that the evidence was not destroyed or altered. Palmer’s concern about the potential destruction of evidence was heightened by Tran removing the camera from his car and putting it in his backpack.

The Court found that  the seizure of the dashboard camera and the subsequent three day holding of the camera while law enforcement obtained a search warrant did not violate the holding in Place.

The trial court did not err denying Tran’s motion to suppress.