Thursday, December 14, 2006
C.A.: Police May Not Impound Driver’s Car Parked at Residence After Traffic Stop, Arrest on Prior Warrant
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Police officers may not impound a defendants car legally parked in front of his residence after they stopped him for a driving infraction and arrested him on an outstanding warrant, this district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Div. Eight reversed Ricky C. Williams’ conviction for possession of a loaded firearm which police found in the back of his rented car when performing an inventory search after impounding the vehicle.
“We conclude that impounding appellant’s car, which was legally parked in front of his residence, was unconstitutional, as it served no community caretaking purpose,” Justice Paul Boland wrote for the court.
Santa Monica Police Officer Derek Morton testified that he spotted Williams driving without wearing a seatbelt. He followed William’s and turned on the overhead lights on his police car.
Williams pulled over and parked at the curb in front of his residence. Other cars were parked along the street.
Williams showed Morton his driver’s license, but did not have the registration or proof of insurance for the car, which was a rental. Morton ran a computer check and found an outstanding warrant for Williams’ arrest.
Morton placed Williams under arrest, and other officers took him to the police station. Morton then impounded Williams car.
The officer said he knew the car was parked in front of Williams’ residence, was legally parked and was not a traffic hazard, the record showed. He admitted he had no reason to believe that the car had been stolen, or that Williams did not legally possess it.
Morton also admitted the car could have been locked and left right where Williams parked it, but he did not give Williams the opportunity to do so.
During an inventory search of the car, Morton found a loaded gun inside a bag in the back seat. Williams was charged with possession of a loaded weapon.
Williams moved to suppress the gun as the product of an illegal seizure and search of the car.
Morton testified that the Santa Monica Police Department did not have a policy addressing when a car should be impounded, and the decision was left entirely to each officer’s discretion. He said he had never been given “any direction about what factors to consider when exercising that discretion.”
The officer said he considers whether the vehicle was legally in the driver’s possession, but he “almost always impound[ed] a vehicle if the driver of that vehicle is arrested in or about that vehicle.”
Los Angeles Superior Judge James R. Brandlin denied Williams’ suppression motion, finding that Morton had probable cause to detain him for a traffic infraction, and the seizure of the car was therefore proper.
After a jury convicted Williams, he appealed, contending the Brandlin erroneously denied his suppression motion because impounding the car violated his Fourth Amendment rights.
Boland agreed, saying:
“Morton admitted that the car was legally parked in front of appellant’s residence, appellant had a valid driver’s license, the car was properly registered to a car rental company, the car had not been reported stolen, and he had no reason to believe appellant was not in lawful possession of the car.”
The justice continued:
“The prosecution simply did not establish that impounding appellant’s car served any community caretaking function. It therefore failed to establish the constitutional reasonableness of the seizure and subsequent inventory search.”
Justices Laurence D. Rubin and Madeleine I. Flier concurred in the opinion.
The case is People v. Williams, B188129.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company