A recent case from the Ohio Supreme Court dealt with the issue of whether a warrantless inventory search of a lawfully parked vehicle violates the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Facts of the Case
The case, State v. Leak, began with a warrant for the arrest of Mr. Leak for domestic violence. The officer found Leak sitting in the passenger seat of a parked vehicle. The officer made contact with Leak, arrested him, and placed him into the back of his cruiser.
After the arrest, the officer ran a check on the driver of the vehicle. The check resulted in no outstanding warrants. Nonetheless, the officer ordered the driver out of the vehicle, called for a tow of the vehicle, and conducted an inventory search of the vehicle. The officer found a handgun under the passenger seat, which Leak admitted belonged to him.
Prior to trial, Leak’s attorney filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the search violated Leak’s Fourth Amendment rights. The officer testified at the hearing that although he was uncertain who owned the vehicle, he only had the vehicle towed because he believed Leak owned it. He further testified that it is standard procedure to conduct an inventory search of a vehicle that is to be towed.
The trial court denied the motion to suppress and Leak entered a no contest plea to the charges of carrying a concealed weapon and improper handling of a firearm. On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress. Leaked appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.
Warrantless Search – Exceptions to the Warrant Requirement
To begin the analysis, the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that people are protected against unreasonable searches and seizures absent a warrant based upon probable cause. Whether a search is “unreasonable” depends upon the facts and circumstances of each case. However, a search absent a warrant is per se unreasonable, subject to a few exceptions. Two such exceptions are search incident to lawful arrest and an inventory search.
Search Incident to Lawful Arrest
It is not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment for an officer to search a vehicle without a warrant when a recent occupant of the vehicle has been arrested and (1) the arrestee is within reaching distance of the vehicle or (2) the vehicle may contain evidence of the evidence that led to the arrest.
Here, Leak was arrested and not within reaching distance of the vehicle. Thus, the officer could justify his search of the vehicle only if he reasonably believed that the vehicle contained evidence related to domestic violence. However, the Court held that this was not a reasonable belief. Nothing connected the vehicle that Leak was sitting in with the domestic violence offense.
As part of the interest in public safety, vehicles are frequently taken into police custody and inventory searches are often conducted. There are three objectives to this type of search: (1) protecting the individuals property while in police custody; (2) protect the police from claims of lost or stolen property; and (3) protect the police from danger.
Inventory searches of lawfully impounded vehicles are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. This is reasonable, however, only when the evidence does not demonstrate that the procedure involved is merely a pretext for an evidentiary search of the impounded vehicle.
Leak argued that the impoundment was unlawful and, thus, the search pursuant to the impoundment was unreasonable. The State argued that the vehicle was lawfully impounded pursuant to police procedure and the search was valid.
The Court found that the vehicle was legally parked, Leak was the passenger and the driver had a “clean license,” and nothing suggested that the vehicle could not be lawfully driven away by the driver. Furthermore, there was no indication that the vehicle was connected to Leak’s domestic violence offense or that the vehicle would be left unattended after Leak’s arrest. The vehicle was only towed because of the officer’s unreasonable belief that he had just arrested the owner.
The Court held that the ownership of a vehicle that is not implicated in criminal activity is not sufficient to justify an inventory search without a warrant. However, this was irrelevant because the vehicle was legally parked and Leak was not the owner. Furthermore, the arrest of a recent occupant of a lawfully parked vehicle does not, by itself, establish reasonableness to justify a warrantless search of the vehicle.
Therefore, the warrantless search of the vehicle was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment and the Court reversed both the Court of Appeals and the trial court’s decision to deny the motion to suppress the evidence of the gun found during the search of the vehicle.
Columbus and Delaware, Ohio Criminal Defense Attorney
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