Maybe Not So “Inevitable” After All – First District Court of Appeal Says “No” to Prosecution’s Claims of Inventory Search and Inevitable Discovery

One of the most common motions a criminal defendant and his or her attorney might bring is a motion to suppress evidence that was illegally obtained by law enforcement in violation of the defendant’s constitutional protection against warrantless, unreasonable search or seizure. This constitutional right is guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. Instead of seeking and obtaining a search warrant from a judge, law enforcement officers often rely on judicially-created exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of a search warrant. Two exceptions that the government frequently relies upon – as I well know from my time both as a prosecutor here in Humboldt County and as a Deputy Public Defender in another county – are the doctrines of Inventory Search and Inevitable Discovery. A recent decision by the First District Court of Appeal which hears cases from much of Northern California, including Humboldt County, illustrates the limitations of these exceptions to the search warrant requirement.
In People v. Wallace, 2017 DJDAR 8822 (Solano County), Leroy Wallace III was pulled over by officers of the Fairfield Police Department for displaying false registration tabs on his vehicle and arrested for that Vehicle Code violation and on suspicion of a violent incident that occurred one or two nights prior. Officers placed Wallace, who was handcuffed, in the back of a police vehicle, and then searched the vehicle Wallace had been driving. During that search, an officer found a wooden baton in the passenger compartment. Wallace was later convicted of a felony charge for possessing the wooden baton and sentenced to three years. He successfully appealed the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence that officers found the baton in his vehicle.
Law enforcement may search a vehicle when impounding it without a search warrant, when the officer conducts that “inventory search” according to standard criteria and on the basis of something other than suspicion of evidence of criminal activity. The inventory search procedure is aimed at three separate needs: the protection of the owner’s property while it remains in police custody; the protection of the police against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property; and the protection of the police from potential danger from unidentified objects or persons concealed in the vehicle. However, in Wallace’s case, the First District Court of Appeal found that the Fairfield Police Department officers were unable to testify that they followed key aspects of their department’s procedure. Therefore, the Court reversed the trial court’s finding that the prosecution could justify the seizure of the baton as part of a valid inventory search.
The prosecution often, as in Wallace’s case, may argue in the alternative that even if the offered exception to the warrant requirement does not pass constitutional muster, the evidence would have been “inevitably discovered” by law enforcement at a later time by lawful methods. In Wallace’s case, the government’s fallback position also failed. The First District noted that there was no testimony establishing that Wallace’s vehicle was in fact impounded and towed. If it had been, the prosecution probably could have shown that the baton would have been discovered by a Fairfielld Police Department officer properly conducting an inventory search at a later time, such as when the tow truck arrived or when Wallace’s vehicle arrived at the impound yard. In a seemingly frustrated tone (courts tend not to enjoy suppressing evidence as a result of Fourth Amendment violations), the First District panel declined “to build speculative inference on top of speculative inference” and found against the government’s argument that the baton would ultimately have been found by law enforcement using lawful means.
Convincing a court to grant the motion to suppress usually results in a dismissal of one or more charges in a criminal case. If the prosecution cannot present the illegally-obtained evidence at trial, it usually cannot prove any charges based on that evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Janssen Malloy LLP attorneys Patrik Griego and David Nims have obtained good results for some criminal defense clients by staying apprised of the latest developments in this area of law and by litigating motions to suppress evidence that was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment.