When Is (or Isn’t) a Warrantless Police Search of an Impounded Vehicle Allowable in California?

Legal News GavelInteractions with law enforcement can be stressful events. You may think that you are being pulled over for a traffic violation, only to find that the scope of the stop has expanded now that the officer has you pulled over. The law places certain limits on what the police can do, however, and that includes the searches they perform without a warrant. If your person or possessions have been the subject of a warrantless police search, and you have subsequently been charged with a crime, make sure that you promptly retain an experienced San Francisco criminal defense attorney to fight for your rights.

An example of how a warrantless search can lead to the exclusion of evidence was the criminal trial of a man named Leroy. Leroy’s March 2015 interaction with law enforcement began the way many encounters do:  an officer stopped him for committing a traffic violation. While that officer had Leroy stopped, another officer contacted him to let him know that Leroy was a suspect in a domestic violence incident that had happened 1-2 days earlier.

The two Fairfield officers took Leroy from his car, handcuffed him, and put him in a police vehicle. They then proceeded to search Leroy’s car. Since Leroy was alone in the car, and, allegedly, no one was available to take possession of the car, the police had it towed. In their search, the police found a two-foot-long brown wooden baton with a red tape handle. Based on that find, the prosecution added another charge against Leroy:  violation of Penal Code Section 22210, which bars possessing “any instrument or weapon of the kind commonly known as a billy, blackjack, sandbag, sandclub, sap, or slingshot.”

The accused man asked the trial judge to exclude the evidence of the baton. The Constitution protects everyone from unreasonable searches and seizures. Leroy’s argument was that the police’s search of his vehicle, given the criminal allegations against him, was not reasonable.

The Court of Appeal agreed with Leroy that the search was unreasonable, which meant that the baton was not admissible. The court pointed out that, under both California and federal laws, police searches executed without a warrant are presumed to be unreasonable. There is only a specific set of precise exceptions in which warrantless searches are allowed. One of those exceptions is when the police conduct an inventory of vehicles that they impound. This type of search is considered to be part of the police’s “community caretaking” duties, and it doesn’t require a judge to sign a warrant first.

The law says, however, that these inventory searches must truly be searches done solely to inventory a vehicle’s contents, instead of as an excuse to perform what really amounts to an investigatory search designed to help build a case.

In Leroy’s situation, the Fairfield police had a policy of towing cars when no one was available to take possession of them, and they also had a policy of filling out a form that included a space for listing the contents of a towed vehicle. The key to Leroy’s successful appeal was the timing of the events. The prosecution had no proof that, at the time that the officer searched Leroy’s vehicle, it was going to be towed. There was no evidence that they had decided to tow it and no evidence that they had called anyone to arrange for someone to tow the vehicle. Given that the search took place well before the decision was made to tow the vehicle, the search could not qualify as an inventory search under the community caretaking exception. In other words, the search was an unreasonable, warrantless search, and Leroy was entitled to a new trial in which the baton evidence was excluded.

The Constitution says you have the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. To get the full protection that the law provides, you need criminal defense counsel familiar with the law and the system. Reach out to the experienced San Francisco criminal defense attorneys at Uthman Law Office. Our team has been providing effective representation to our criminal defense clients for many years. Attorney David Uthman has over 20 years of experience as a litigation attorney and almost a decade of experience as a police officer. Put our knowledge of the law and the system to work for you. Call us today at (415) 556-9200 to schedule your FREE initial consultation to get the help you need.

More blog posts:

A California Criminal Defendant Who Handled His Own Defense Shows Why That’s Often Not a Good Idea, San Francisco Criminal Lawyer Blog, April 18, 2018

How the Fourth Amendment May Help You Keep a Warrantless Blood Test’s Results out of Your California DUI Case, San Francisco Criminal Lawyer Blog, March 6, 2018