California Supreme Court Closes Warrantless Vehicle Search Loophole

from the which-leaves-cops-with-only-another-half-dozen-they-can-use dept

The California Supreme Court has overturned 17 years of questionable case law, restoring a bit of the Fourth for drivers in the state. (via Courthouse News)

For nearly two decades, state law enforcement officers were able to search a vehicle without a warrant if the driver could not provide identification. While traveling on public roads in your car lowers your expectation of privacy, vehicle searches still require reasonable suspicion of criminal activity at the very least. Officers have a few other options to bypass warrant requirements, including inventory searches if the vehicle is being impounded and the ever-popular “probable cause of four legs” K-9 units to bypass warrant requirements.

California judicial precedent gave officers another way around warrant requirements by allowing searches of vehicles if the driver didn’t have their ID on them. That’s no longer the case in California, thanks to this recent ruling [PDF].

In this case, a vehicle search following demands for identification resulted in officers discovering methamphetamine in the driver’s purse. That evidence — along with this terrible precedent — is no longer usable by law enforcement.

The trial court said the search was unconstitutional because none of the acceptable justifications for vehicle searches incident to arrest were in use here.

Gant held that a vehicle search incident to arrest is justified only if it is reasonable to believe the suspect can gain access to weapons inside the vehicle or that evidence of the offense of arrest might be found inside the vehicle. (Id. at p. 335.) Here, Lopez was handcuffed at the rear of her car when the search took place and could not reach any weapons inside the car. Nor was there any likelihood a search of the car would produce evidence of Lopez’s driving without a license in her possession.

The appeals court reversed the decision, citing the traffic-stop-identification-search-warrant exception created by the state Supreme Court in its 2002 decision (in re Arturo D.), which predated the US Supreme Court’s Gant decision cited by the trial court by seven years.

The state court says the US Supreme Court’s Gant decision is controlling here. It changed the contours of traffic stops and searches seven years after its own decision in Arturo. It defers to the top court in the land here.

It is important to remember that the question before us is a question of federal constitutional law, not one of state law. In matters of federal law, the United States Supreme Court has the final word; we operate as an intermediate court and not as a court of last resort.

Leaving the Arturo precedent untouched would force California to remain the odd state out in the Union.

To reaffirm the exception now would leave California out of step not only with United States Supreme Court precedent, but also with every other jurisdiction in the nation.

This doesn’t mean cops will never be able to engage in warrantless searches when questions of identification remain unanswered. Officers can still ask for consent to search. Officers can also ask for personal info and attempt to verify that info using their access to drivers’ databases. And, if officers have good reason to believe the person is lying, they can use the law forbidding providing false information as justification to search the car for evidence of that crime — i.e., something identifying the driver as someone other than who they say they are.

New precedent is created here — one that affirms the ruling handed down in 2009 by the US Supreme Court:

[W]e now hold the Fourth Amendment does not contain an exception to the warrant requirement for searches to locate a driver’s identification following a traffic stop. To the extent it created such an exception, In re Arturo D., supra, 27 Cal.4th 60, is overruled and should no longer be followed.

California rejoins the Fourth Amendment, already in progress. California cops will just have to use other workarounds to dodge the few Constitutional rights they’re willing to recognize from now on.

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Comments on “California Supreme Court Closes Warrantless Vehicle Search Loophole”

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8 Comments
Norahc (profile) says:

The appeals court reversed the decision, citing the traffic-stop-identification-search-warrant exception created by the state Supreme Court in its 2002 decision (in re Arturo D.), which predated the US Supreme Court’s Gant decision cited by the trial court by seven years.

So it only took them 10 years to realize the 4th Amendment actually means something? Better late than never I guess.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: 4th Amendment actually means something?

the real lesson here for citizens is that our American "Law" is highly arbitrary… at the whims of judges, police, and politicians.

There’s nothing stopping the California Supreme Court from again reversing this latest "decision" in 10-20 years… and re-establishing such warrantless vehicle searches.

Same with US Supreme Court, which treats the 4th Amendment as merely a loose guideline rather than fundamental law.

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