Police May Not Impound Car As Ruse To Search

Though not a Long Beach case, this recent appeals case out of the Federal Court bears some resemblance to many scenarios in the city.

Here, the police conducted surveillance of appellant and others relative to drug activity, appellant’s car was stopped. When appellant could not produce a driver’s license he was seized and an inventory search of the vehicle was conducted, during which cocaine was found. The DMV later confirmed appellant did have a valid license. The district court denied appellant’s motion to suppress, finding his vehicle had been lawfully impounded and the search conducted under the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Held: Reversed. The search was not valid under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement because officers lacked probable cause for the search. The officer’s conclusory statement that appellant was followed from a suspected “narcotics stash house” without more, is entitled to little weight. Further, appellant’s alleged “counter surveillance driving” did not support probable cause. Finally, the government failed to establish that impoundment of appellant’s vehicle was justified under the community caretaking exception, which allows officers to impound vehicles that jeopardize public safety and the flow of traffic. Once a vehicle has been lawfully impounded, officers may conduct an inventory search, provided it conforms to the standard practices of the local police department. However, an inventory search may not be used as a ruse to discover evidence of a crime. Here, there was no evidence that appellant’s car, which he stopped in a residential neighborhood, was parked illegally, impeded traffic, or was subject to theft/vandalism. Further, officers may not have complied with applicable procedure, which provides for impoundment immediately after arrest, as appellant was not arrested until after the search. (Veh. Code, § 14602.6, subd. (a)(1).) The search was therefore illegal.(ccap).  As any Long Beach Criminal Defense Attorney knows, the police will find any way to search if they believe the car has something illegal, here the court ruled they went too far.

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