Can Cars Be Searched TWICE – at the Scene and Again at Impound Lot – Under the Automobile Exception?

Officers stopped defendant and appellant Vernon Evans after they observed him commit traffic violations. When Evans refused to comply with a command to exit his automobile, officers broke the vehicle’s window, “Tased” and pepper sprayed him, forcibly removed him from the car, and arrested him for interfering with a police investigation. A warrantless search of the vehicle at the scene revealed 11 empty sandwich baggies and $65 in cash, but no contraband.

A second warrantless search of the car at an impound yard revealed cocaine hidden in an air vent. After the trial court denied Evans’s motion to suppress the baggies, cash, and cocaine, Evans pleaded no contest to violating Health and Safety Code section 11352, subdivision (a).

Because the searches of his vehicle were not authorized under either the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement (Arizona v. Gant (2009) 556 U.S. 332 [173 L.Ed.2d 485, 129 S.Ct. 1710] (Gant)) or the automobile exception, they violated the Fourth Amendment. Accordingly, we reverse.

Search Incident to Arrest: two-part rule under which an automobile search incident to a recent occupant’s arrest is constitutional (1) if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the vehicle during the search, or (2) if the police have reason to believe that the vehicle contains `evidence relevant to the crime of arrest.’ [Citation.]” (Davis, supra, 564 U.S. at p. ___ [131 S.Ct. at p. 2425]; see Gant, supra, 556 U.S. at p. 343 [129 S.Ct. at p. 1719].)

Automobile Exception: Under the automobile exception, police who have probable cause to believe a lawfully stopped vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity or contraband may conduct a warrantless search of any area of the vehicle in which the evidence might be found. (Gant, supra, 556 U.S. at pp. 346-347 [129 S.Ct. at p. 1721]; Ross, supra, 456 U.S. at pp. 820-821; People v. Panah (2005) 35 Cal.4th 395, 469 [25 Cal.Rptr.3d 672, 107 P.3d 790]; People v. Superior Court (Nasmeh), supra, 151 Cal.App.4th at pp. 100-102.) Such a search “is not unreasonable if based on facts that would justify the issuance of a warrant, even though a warrant has not actually been obtained.” (Ross, supra, at p. 809.) Ross “allows searches for evidence relevant to offenses other than the offense of arrest, and the scope of the search authorized is broader.” (Gant, supra, at p. 347 [129 S.Ct. at p. 1721].) “If probable cause justifies the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle, it justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search.” (Ross, supra, at p. 825; see Gant, supra, at p. 347 [129 S.Ct. at p. 1721]; People v. Hunter (2005) 133 Cal.App.4th 371, 379-382 [34 Cal.Rptr.3d 818].) The automobile exception is rooted in the reduced expectation of privacy in a vehicle, the fact a vehicle is inherently mobile, and the historical distinctions between searches of automobiles and dwellings. (See California v. Carney (1985) 471 U.S. 386, 391-393 [85 L.Ed.2d 406, 105 S.Ct. 2066]; People v. Superior Court (Nasmeh), supra, 151 Cal.App.4th at p. 100.)

Full case here: People v. Evans, 200 Cal. App. 4th 735 (2011),

Anton Vialtsin, Esq.
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