Court Upholds Police Search of Car After Impound, Expands Police Search Powers

The Right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures just got a bit narrower, and the police have a new reason to search your car.

On November 9, 2009, the 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeal upheld a search of a car that was being impounded without an arrest of the driver on the grounds that the discovery of the evidence inside was “inevitable”.

The facts of the case of United States v. Ruckes are simple and pretty common.  Dude was pulled over, officer discovered that his drivers license was suspended for a failure to pay child support.  Although the officer could have arrested Dude at that point, the officer initially decided to give Dude a citation and release him – sans vehicle – which is French for “Dude to be released but car to be impounded”.

It seemed at this point to Dude that he had gotten really lucky. But then his luck changed.

Although the towing of the vehicle was to be done by a private company, and there was no arrest at this point, the Officer searched the car without permission and found a bottle of crack cocaine.   And then he found a loaded 9mm handgun.

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Dude, who should have left earlier, was arrested for the crack and for being a felon in possession of a weapon.

At his trial, Dude tried everything to avoid prison time.  He challenged the search of the vehicle on the grounds that since there was no arrest at the time of the impound, the officer had no probable cause to justify a search. He argued the Officer’s search was unreasonable under the 4th Amendment, and therefore the crack and the gun could not be used at trial.

The 4th Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits “Unreasonable Searches and Seizures”, and established law dictates that a warrant less search is  per se (presumed) unreasonable.

In general, any evidence obtained from a warrant less search is inadmissible in a trial, unless a recognized exception to the warrant requirement applies.

A search that occurs during an arrest, is an exception to the warrant requirement.  But here there was not arrest, and the officer had no reason to believe Dude had committed any other crime.

Dude asked the court to exclude the evidence of the crack cocaine, and the gun because the search was unreasonable under the 4th Amendment. The trial court denied the request, and Dude was convicted.

He appealed the ruling to the Federal Court of Appeal.  After reviewing the law and arguments from the government and Dude’s defense counsel, the 9th Circuit Federal Appeals Court decided that the search of an impounded vehicle was legal.

The rationale the Court adopted for the ruling was that although a car search was not properly incident to arrest, the evidence obtained was admissible because the police would have discovered it inevitably during an inventory search to identify the personal property in the car.

Commentators have called the ruling the “inevitable discovery rule”.

To me, it sounds more like:

“If a police officer is going to find something eventually, it’s OK to search for it before there is probable cause to justify the search.”

I expect the decision will result in the police searching nearly every car they impound, regardless of the reason for the impound.  So my professional advice is that if you are driving with a suspended license, leave your crack and loaded gun at home.

Dude does have the right to petition the US Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals decision.  As of right now, this decision is binding on all US District Courts in the 9th Circuit (Western US and California) and very persuasive in California State Courts.

The decision in its entirety can be found as a “.pdf” file at:

United States v. Ruckes http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2009/11/09/08-30088.pdf

About Attorney Christopher Dort

Public Interest Attorney. CA State Bar #196832. Licensed to practice law in California 1998, and then the US Federal District Court in 2000. Civil Litigation Trial Attorney (Insurance Defense Firms) 2000-2003. Private practice 2003 - present. First Solo Criminal Jury Trial 1998 (Santa Cruz County). First Civil Jury Trial 2002 (Orange County). Santa Cruz County Public Defenders Office 1996-1999 (law clerk). BA in Politics from UC Santa Cruz, 1995. JD, University of California, Hastings, 1998.
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One Response to Court Upholds Police Search of Car After Impound, Expands Police Search Powers

  1. Burkey says:

    Great blog.

    Disturbing case..

    thanks for the info…

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