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CA Court Rejects Inventory Search and Inevitable Discovery Arguments in Warrantless Search Case

by Richard Resch

The Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, ruled that evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment and the California Constitution should have been suppressed, and it reversed defendant’s conviction for possession of a baton in violation of Cal Pen Code § 22210.

On March 18, 2015, Leroy Wallace III was pulled over for a traffic violation. He was arrested on the scene as a suspect in an unrelated domestic violence incident. Officer Michael Ambrose then went to Wallace’s vehicle and discovered a wooden baton wedged between the center console and the driver’s seat. Wallace was subsequently charged with violation of § 22210, which prohibits possession of “any instrument or weapon of the kind commonly known as a billy, blackjack, sandbag, sandclub, sap, or slungshot.”

Wallace moved to suppress evidence of the baton. At the suppression hearing, Officer Ambrose testified that after Wallace was placed under arrest he went to Wallace’s vehicle to conduct an inventory search in order to safeguard Wallace’s possessions because Wallace claimed that it was his belief that the vehicle was going to be towed and impounded. Ambrose conceded he stopped taking inventory (searching) Wallace’s vehicle after finding the baton. He admitted that he did not know whether the vehicle was actually towed and whether the standard inventory form was completed because he left before everything was wrapped up on scene by other officers.

The court denied Wallace’s suppression motion. It ruled that Ambrose’s search of Wallace’s vehicle was justified as an inventory search “based upon the normal practice” once an individual is taken into custody and his vehicle is towed.

Wallace entered into a plea agreement in which he pleaded no contest but preserved his right to appeal the denial of his suppression motion. The court sentenced him to three years in county jail and ordered him to serve six months with the remainder of the time on mandatory supervision.

He then appealed, arguing that there was no evidence that Officer Ambrose’s search was a genuine inventory search, and thus it violated his constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure. On appeal, the State did not argue the search was an inventory search; rather, it argued inevitable discovery.

The Court of Appeal began its discussion by explaining that an inventory search of a vehicle in the course of impounding it is a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 365 (1976). Such searches must follow a standard practice of securing and inventorying vehicle contents. Inventory searches may not be used as a pretext to search for contraband or other evidence. They may not be used as “a purposeful and general means of discovering evidence of crime.” Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1 (1990). The U.S. Supreme Court in Wells instructed that a valid inventory search “must adhere to a preexisting policy or practice.”

 In the present case, Officer Ambrose testified that it was standard policy to have a vehicle towed and inventoried under the circumstances, complete a CHP 180 form, and list items found in the vehicle on the form. Yet Ambrose did not comply with any of these standard procedures. In fact, there was no evidence in the record that Wallace’s vehicle was ever towed. Furthermore, Ambrose stopped searching after he found the baton in the vehicle. The Court concluded that Ambrose did not conduct a genuine inventory search. Instead, he conducted an investigatory search for evidence under the pretext of an inventory search in violation of Wallace’s constitutional rights.

The Court of Appeal then addressed the State’s position that the doctrine of inevitable discovery justified the search because the baton would have been discovered during a valid inventory search. Inevitable discovery focuses on demonstrated historical facts capable of ready verification or impeachment; there can be no speculative elements. Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431 (1984). Evidence that was illegally obtained may nevertheless be admissible if it can be established that the evidence “ultimately or inevitably would have been discovered by lawful means.”

 The Court rejected the State’s argument. It explained that there is no evidence in the record that the vehicle was ever towed or that the officers on scene even discussed the need for it to be towed. To assume that the baton would inevitably have been discovered during a valid inventory search requires the Court “to build speculative inference on top of speculative inference,” stated the Court. If the vehicle was never towed, then there simply could not have been a legitimate inventory search. The record is silent on the issue, so one must speculate, which is prohibited under the inevitable discovery doctrine.

Accordingly, the State failed to meet its burden of establishing that the search did not violate the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment and the California Constitution. The Court of Appeal reversed and remanded with directions to the trial court to (1) vacate the order denying the motion to suppress and enter order granting it; (2) permit Wallace to withdraw his no contest plea; and (3) determine whether the State intends to retry the case.

See: People v. Wallace, 15 Cal. App. 5th 82 (2017). 

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