Parked Vehicles And The Fourth Amendment: Ohio Supreme Court Explains Why A Warrantless Inventory Search Of A Lawfully Parked Vehicle Is Unreasonable

Jack Burton once said, “When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like that: ‘Have ya paid your dues, Jack?” “Yes sir, the check is in the mail.’”

And that ladies and gentlemen is exactly what Quayshaun Leak did over the course of three years.  Leak’s wild-eyed eight-foot-tall maniac, collectively, were the Richland County Prosecutors Office, the Richland County Common Pleas Court, and the Fifth District Court of Appeals Court.  After being told by the trial court and the appellate court that his God given rights as an American citizen were not violated, Leak took it to the next level.  That next level was the Ohio Supreme Court.  It was at this level that our faith in the United States Constitution and the Ohio Constitution was restored. (Insert mental image of Bald Eagle soaring over the Rocky Mountains while John Wayne chases down ISIS terrorists on horseback…does not get much better than that).

Back on August 8, 2012, the Richland County Sheriff’s Office issued an arrest warrant for Leak based on a charge of domestic violence.  Wanting to assist the Sheriff Office, a Mansfield police officer headed over to the area where Leak lived.  The officer had his wits, his training, his love of action, and a description of the car Leak was reported to be in.  But the officer did not have a copy of the warrant or any information on where the alleged domestic violence dispute took place.

Not letting that get him down, the officer began to search for the car around Leak’s apartment.  It was in a cul-de-sac that the officer spotted the car question parked behind another car.  By seeing what appeared to be an attempt to conceal the vehicle, the officer knew he had stumbled upon criminal masterminds that must be stopped.  Lucky for the officer, Leak was seated in the passenger seat.   The officer approached the car, ordered Leak out of the car, arrested Leak, and placed Leak in the back of his patrol car.

After securing Leak in the back of his patrol car, the officer ran a check on the driver and found a clean driving record.  Instead of letting the driver and the other passenger go on their merry way, the officer removed them from the vehicle and called for a tow truck to impound the car.  The officer then searched the vehicle and found a gun, which Leak admitted was his to the officer.  Leak was subsequently charged with weapons violations and at the trial court, he moved to suppress the evidence of the gun asserting the search of car violated his U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment rights against illegal searches and seizures.

At the suppression hearing, the arresting officer testified he was not certain who owned the car, but said he ordered it to be towed because he believed Leak owned it.  The officer stated it was department policy to conduct an “inventory search” before a car is towed to account for all the items in it.  The officer also testified that in situation like Leak’s, he searches cars for evidence of a crime because he does not know where the alleged domestic violence happened.  Makes total sense…….

After the suppression hearing concluded, the trial court overruled Leak’s motion to suppress evidence.  Leak pled no contest and was sentenced.  Leak then appealed to the appellate court which overruled his appeal.  Moving onward and upward, Leak brought his plight to Columbus to be heard by the Ohio Supremes.

In writing for the court, Justice O’Neil ultimately concluded that inventory search violated Leak’s right to unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment to The United States Constitution and Article I, Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution.  Looking at the Justice O’Neil’s opinion, he breaks down the arguments for allowing police to search a vehicle.  Specifically: 1) Search Incident to Lawful Arrest; 2) Lawful Community-Caretaking Inventory Search; and 3) Good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule.  To ease this legal opinion, I will break down the analysis in the same order of the opinion.

Search Incident to Lawful Arrest

Alright, what the hell does Search Incident to Lawful Arrest mean?  When talking Fourth Amendment searches, any warrantless searches are per se unreasonable prior to approval by a judge or magistrate. Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347.  If you ever watched COPS, the amazing show it is, then you have probably witnessed police officers pat-down a suspect prior to being formally arrested and searched the suspect’s vehicle.  What you probably did not witness was that prior to the search of the vehicle or pat-down the officer trying to get ahold of a magistrate or judge to conduct the search.  So, we have officers conducting searches on suspects without a warrant from a judge or magistrate…..what gives?  Search incident to a lawful arrest is an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.

This exception exists for officer safety and to safeguard evidence that the arrestee might conceal or destroy.  State v. Adams, 2015-Ohio-3954.  Search incident to arrest is not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment for a law-enforcement officer to search a vehicle without a warrant when a recent occupant of the vehicle has been arrested and 1) the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the vehicle or 2) it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense that led to the arrest.  Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332.

Looking at the facts of Leak’s case, the search incident to lawful arrest will not pan out for the officer.  Leak was arrested, secured in the back of a patrol car, and not within reaching distance of the vehicle prior to the arrest.  The first part of the exception does not work.  Let’s move on to the second part of the exception.

As stated above, the officer had his wits, his training, his love of action, and a description of the car, BUT he did not have a copy of the warrant or any information on where the alleged domestic violence dispute took place.   In addition, the officer testified that in situation like Leak’s, he searches cars for evidence of a crime because he does not know where the alleged domestic violence happened.  Basically, the officer did not have any legitimate information about the domestic violence charge to establish a connection between the vehicle Leak was sitting in prior to the arrest and the offense for which Leak was arrested.   The officer was merely on a fishing expedition for criminal evidence against Leak!  Not liking the officer’s justification for the search, the Court found the officer’s belief that the car contained evidence of the domestic-violence charge unreasonable.  Thus, this type of search fails as search incident to a lawful arrest exception.

Lawful Community-Caretaking Inventory Search

Ever been in a traffic jam because of wrecked vehicles?  Chances are pretty good that at some point in your driving career you were stuck in a traffic jam and were running late to something because of it.  Do you remember sitting in your car yelling “just tow the damn cars already!  Let’s move it!!”  I would yell something similar, but with some more choice words.  Police towing cars after an accident is an example of their community-caretaking function, which results from the government’s extensive regulation of motor vehicles and traffic.  See Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433.  Some other examples of police taking vehicles into custody are violations of parking ordinances, stolen or abandoned vehicles, and vehicles that cannot be lawfully driven.  Id.  This makes sense because imagine if police or government workers could not tow an abandoned vehicle on a residential street.  No one in the neighbor wants abandoned cars just hanging out.

With that in mind, inventory searches performed pursuant to standard police procedure on vehicles taken into police custody as part of a community-caretaking function are reasonable. Id.  Inventory searches have three main objectives: 1) protecting an individual’s property while it is in the custody of the police, 2) protecting the police from claims of lost or stolen property, and 3) protecting police from danger. Id.   Based on that logic, inventory searches of lawfully impounded vehicles are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment when performed in accordance with standard police procedure and when the evidence does not demonstrate that the procedure involved is merely a pretext for an evidentiary search of the impounded vehicle.  Blue Ash v. Kavanagh, 2007-Ohio-1103.

Taking the above law surrounding community-caretaking inventory searches, the Court looked to R.C. 4513.61 and Mansfield Codified Ordinances 397.01 to find out if the vehicle had been lawfully impounded or whether the impoundment was merely a pretext for an evidentiary search of the impounded car.  Based on the record, the Court stated that the only reason the officer had the car towed was his uncertain and unverified belief that he had just arrested its owner.  Thus, the officer’s belief was insufficient to support a reasonable conclusion that the car’s impoundment was lawful under R.C 4513.61 or that Leak’s arrest would result in the abandonment of the car to justify its impoundment under 307.01 of the Mansfield Codified Ordinances.

Not wanting to beat up on the officer too much, the Court offered the officer a glimpse of hope that the inventory search was justifiable.  The Court went on to discuss that the U.S. Supreme Court left open the possibility that an impoundment may be lawful if it is pursuant to a police department policy based on “standard criteria and on the basis of something other than suspicion of evidence of criminal activity.”  Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367.  Unfortunately for Officer Serpico, he never testified to any impoundment policy and no such policy was entered into the record.  Because of this lack of testimony, the Ohio Supremes had no basis to determine if “such a policy could be the lawful basis for impounding a vehicle.”

Good-Faith Exception to the Exclusionary Rule

Lastly, the Ohio Supremes looked to the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule.  The exclusionary rule bars the use of evidence secured by an unconstitutional search and seizure. State v. Johnson, 2014-Ohio-5021.  Oddly enough, applying the exclusionary rule to evidence found as a result of an unconstitutional search and seizure is not a personal constitutional right to be exercised by the defendant.  Id.  The rule’s sole purpose is to deter future violations of the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Janis, 433 U.S 433.

However, the Ohio Supremes have held that “when law-enforcement officers act with a good-faith, objectively reasonable belief based on the state of the law at the time the search was conducted, suppression of the evidence obtained as a result of the search would have no appreciable effect on deterring future violations of the Fourth Amendment, and therefore the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule applies. State v. Johnson.  But, when the police exhibit deliberate, reckless, or grossly negligent disregard for Fourth Amendment rights, the deterrent value of exclusion is strong and tends to outweigh the resulting costs.  Herring v. United States, 555 U.S. 135.

Looking at the totality of the circumstances of Leak’s arrest and subsequent search, the Ohio Supremes found that “permitting evidence to be used against Leak under the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule would eviscerate the purpose of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

This opinion describing Leak’s legal plight brings me back to one of the greatest unsung heroes this country has ever produced, Jack Burton.  Jack has been known to say the following: “Just remember what ol’ Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big ol’ storm right square in the eye and he says, ‘Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.’”  And that is what happened over the course of three years to stand up for the Fourth Amendment of our Constitution.

As a side note, if you are reading this and you do not know who Jack Burton is, I suggest you rent the documentary entitled Big Trouble in Little China.  It is an amazing story about a simply man trying to get his beloved truck back from the street gang Lords of Death.  In doing so, Jack helps rescue his friend’s fiancée and saves San Francisco’s Chinatown.  It is worth your time!

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