WARRANTLESS SEARCH OF VEHICLE DASHBOARD CONSOLE IS PERMISSIBLE UNDER THE “AUTOMOBILE EXCEPTION” WHEN SUPPORTED BY PROBABLE CAUSE

Courtesy of James R. Touchstone, Esq.

On November 13, 2017, the California Court of Appeal for the Sixth Appellate District decided, in the case of People v. Zabala, 2017 Cal. App. LEXIS 996, that the removal of a dashboard console exceeds the scope of a permissible inventory search incident to an arrest without a warrant.  However, the Court also held that if, under the circumstances of a particular case, independent probable cause exists to support a search involving removal of a dashboard console, then the search is permissible without a warrant under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.

Background

Defendant Zabala, while driving with a suspended license, was stopped by a Santa Clara County Sheriff’s deputy for a traffic infraction. The vehicle was searched following the deputy’s decision to impound it.  The deputy found baggies filled with a white substance in a paper bag under the driver’s seat.  She showed those baggies to Deputy Dorsey, who thought the substance might be cocaine. After field testing produced negative results, he concluded it was a cutting agent to be mixed with a controlled substance.

Dorsey then noticed that the radio console “looked loose, like it had been manipulated.” Using his pocket knife, Dorsey removed the console, which was loose, and between air conditioning ducts behind the stereo he found several bags of a white crystalline substance that he recognized as methamphetamine.  Defendant was charged with possession for sale of methamphetamine, transportation of methamphetamine, and driving with a suspended license.  The defendant had four prior narcotics convictions.

Defendant urged the trial court to find that the methamphetamine retrieved from behind the dashboard console without a warrant should be excluded as fruit of an unlawful inventory search.  The trial court denied defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence. Defendant appealed.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the denial of the motion because the warrantless search, while improper as an inventory search alone, was supported by independent probable cause and was, therefore, lawful.

Inventory Search

In analyzing the issue of whether the search of the dash console complied with the inventory search doctrine, the Court initially noted that, “The United States Supreme Court has recognized that automobiles are frequently impounded as part of a local police agency’s community caretaking function, and police agencies will routinely secure and inventory a vehicle’s contents in that process.  (South Dakota v. Opperman (1976) 428 U.S. 364, 368–369 [49 L. Ed. 2d 1000, 96 S. Ct. 3092].)”  The Court further observed that, “In Bertine, the United States Supreme Court upheld as reasonable a vehicle inventory search that extended into canisters located in a closed backpack behind the driver’s seat.  (Bertine, supra, 479 U.S. at p. 369.)”  Finally, the Court stated that, “Illustrating the limits of Bertine, the Supreme Court in Florida v. Wells (1990) 495 U.S. 1 [109 L. Ed. 2d 1, 110 S. Ct. 1632] held that the search of a locked suitcase in the trunk of an impounded car was unreasonable as an inventory search because the police agency had no policy with regard to the opening of closed containers. (Id. at pp. 4–5.)”

The Court further noted that, in People v. Andrews (1970) 6 Cal.App.3d 428, a prior case discussing the right of police to inventory the contents of a lawfully impounded car:  “The inventory must be reasonably related to its purpose which is the protection of the car owner from loss, and the police or other custodian from liability or unjust claim.  It extends to the open areas of the vehicles, including such areas under seats, and other places where property is ordinarily kept, e.g., glove compartments and trunks.  It does not permit a search of hidden places, certainly not the removal of car parts in an effort to locate contraband or other property.  The owner having no legitimate claim for protection of property so hidden and the police could have no legitimate interest in seeking it out.” (Id. at p. 437.)

In general, the Court observed that inventory searches of vehicles incident to arrest are permissible without a warrant as long as they do not exceed the scope of lawful department policy. In this case, the department’s inventory policy limited searches to places in the vehicle where people commonly put items of value, including under the seat, the glove compartment, the center console, and the trunk.  The policy also allowed for the opening of closed containers within the vehicle.  The Court found that a concealed area behind the dashboard console was not an area where people commonly put items of value, nor is it a “closed container”, such as a suitcase, box, or backpack.  Therefore, the Court held the removal of the dashboard console and a search therein was not a lawful inventory search.

Probable Cause For Search

The Court then analyzed whether the search of the dash console was permissible under some other recognized exception to the warrant requirement.  The Court noted that, “[i]n Arizona v. Gant (2009) 556 U.S. 332 [173 L. Ed. 2d 485, 129 S. Ct. 1710], the United States Supreme Court held that the passenger compartment of an automobile may be searched incident to the arrest of an occupant of the vehicle when the arrestee is unsecured and within reach of the vehicle at the time of the search. (Id. at p. 343 & fn. 4.)”  Gant ultimately held that the search of an automobile incident to arrest was confined to the following: “Police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest.”

The Court further stated, however, that, “Gant recognized ‘[o]ther established exceptions to the warrant requirement authorize a vehicle search,’ including a search based on probable cause to believe that a vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity other than the offense of the arrest. (Arizona, at pp. 346–347, citing United States v. Ross, supra, 456 U.S. at pp. 820–821.)  The Supreme Court has also held that ‘[a] vehicle lawfully in police custody may be searched on the basis of probable cause to believe that it contains contraband, and there is no requirement of exigent circumstances to justify such a warrantless search.’ (United States v. Johns (1985) 469 U.S. 478, 484 [83 L. Ed. 2d 890, 105 S. Ct. 881].”

In applying these cases, the Court stated that whether probable cause existed depended on the facts and must be determined on a case-by-case basis.  In the present case, the Court found the existence of probable cause based on the following facts:  (1) the officer was trained to recognize how illegal drugs are packaged and transported; (2) the officer discovered under the driver’s seat what appeared to be several plastic baggies of a controlled substance and/or a cutting agent to be mixed with a controlled substance to increase the volume; (3) the officer noticed that the radio console looked as though it had been manipulated previously, such that the clearance between the actual dashboard and the plastic trim looked enlarged, like it has been removed and replaced; which to him was indicative of a possible hidden compartment; and (4) the driver had four prior narcotics convictions.  As such, the search was legal pursuant to the independent facts giving rise to probable cause for a search of the vehicle under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.

HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY

The Zabala case provides that an officer must either have a warrant to search a vehicle or be able to justify the search pursuant to a well-recognized exception to the warrant requirement.  Here, the Court relied upon the United States Supreme Court’s prior decisions of United States v. Ross and United States v. Johns in finding the search of Zabala’s vehicle was reasonable.  It is important to note that the officer conducting the search of Zabala’s vehicle was able to articulate facts giving rise to probable cause for the search based upon permissible observations and his training.  However, the default approach is to always obtain a warrant to ensure compliance with the Fourth Amendment.

As always, if you wish to discuss this matter in greater detail, please feel free to contact us at (714) 446–1400 or via email at jrt@jones-mayer.com.

Information on www.jones-mayer.com is for general use and is not legal advice.  The mailing of this Client Alert Memorandum is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client-relationship.





Related Recent News