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California Supreme Court Overturns Its Warrantless Identification Search Precedent

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Court of California overturned its previous ruling that had allowed police to search a person’s vehicle for identification as an exception to the warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment.

The case came before the Court after Maria Lopez was stopped in front of her home on a report that a vehicle similar to hers was seen driving erratically earlier that day. A City of Woodland police officer approached Lopez as she exited her vehicle and asked if she had a driver’s license. She said she did not. Instead of asking for other identification or for her name, the officer placed Lopez in a control hold and then handcuffed her.

With Lopez “detained” but not arrested, a second officer entered her vehicle, found Lopez’s purse, and handed it to the first officer. He searched the purse and found methamphetamine. Lopez was charged with misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance.

The trial court granted Lopez’s motion to suppress the evidence. It concluded that the officer had no reason to search her car because a “search incident to arrest” is only justified if the person arrested might gain access to weapons or to evidence in the vehicle that might be tied to the offense. That wasn’t the case here because Lopez was handcuffed and sitting in a patrol car when the officer entered the vehicle and searched her purse.

However, the Court of Appeal reversed, ruling that the “search incident to arrest” exception to the warrant requirement didn’t apply because Lopez was only “detained” and was not yet “arrested” before the search of her purse. Instead, the court ruled that the search was valid under California’s traffic-stop identification-search exception announced by the California Supreme Court in In re Arturo D., 38 P.3d 433 (Cal. 2002).  The California Supreme Court granted review on Lopez’s request.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bans unreasonable searches, and law enforcement must obtain a warrant before conducting a search. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that warrantless searches are “per se” unreasonable. See Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967).

But exceptions do exist, and the California Supreme Court’s holding in In re Arturo D. was one of them. In that case, the court held that when a driver is “detained” for a traffic stop and fails to produce identification, the officer may conduct “limited warrantless searches of areas within a vehicle where such documentation reasonably may be expected to be found.” The Court recognized this as one valid exception to the warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment.

Arturo D., though, was a narrow exception. While the U.S. Supreme Court has held that a search incident to arrest of occupants of a vehicle allows the warrantless search of that vehicle, in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981), the high court held that a “search incident to citation” is not allowed. In Knowles v. Iowa, 525 U.S. 113 (1998), the Court invalidated a warrantless vehicle search after a driver was ticketed for speeding but not arrested when officers searched his vehicle.

In Arturo D., the California Supreme Court distinguished Knowles, saying that Knowles involved a full vehicle search after a traffic citation, whereas the Arturo D. case involved a search for documents prior to the citation. In other words, because the search was only for identification in order to write the citation, Knowles didn’t apply, the Arturo D. Court ruled.

In the nearly two decades since Arturo D., no other court anywhere has agreed with such an “odd” exception, the California Supreme Court acknowledged. In fact, the other courts have expressly rejected Arturo D., the Court said. So, the Court of Appeal was correct to overturn the motion to suppress ruling, the Court said, as long as Arturo D. remained good law.

But enter the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009). There, the Court held that a warrantless search of a vehicle where the driver was unable to reach the vehicle (because he was handcuffed in a police car) was invalid. The Court limited the Belton decision to only cases where the person arrested would be able to reach into the vehicle.

The Gant Court reasoned that a rule that gives police the power to conduct searches of “every purse, briefcase, or other container” in a vehicle whenever someone is caught committing a traffic offense, “creates a serious and recurring threat to the privacy of countless individuals.” The “central concern” of the Fourth Amendment, the Court said, is preventing “police officers unbridled discretion to rummage through at will among a person’s private effects.”

Taking a fresh look at Arturo D. in light of Gant, “its relevance here is hard to miss,” the California Supreme Court said. “Arturo D. applies to individuals who are merely detained for having committed a traffic violation. Such individuals have at least an equal, if not greater interest in officers not rummaging at will through their belongings,” the Court explained.

In Lopez’s case, the officer never asked her name but proceeded directly to searching her car and then her purse, while she was merely detained. Under Gant, the officer would not have been able to search Lopez’s car or get to her purse. But under Arturo D. he could, simply because she was not yet arrested. Gant, therefore, abrogated Arturo D., the Court ruled.

“The inevitable consequence of a categorical rule [in Arturo D.] authorizing officers to look for identification in places where they might reasonable believe the identification is located, or where it might have been hidden, is that officers will look throughout the area into which the driver might reach, much as they would if they were conducting a vehicle search incident to arrest,” the Court explained.

Arturo D. allows warrantless searches of vehicles of “honest and dishonest drivers alike,” the Court said. “It applies even when, as here, the driver has not so much has been given the chance to identify herself before having her vehicle, and the personal belongings contained therein, opened for official examination.” 

The Court held that “the Fourth Amendment does not contain an exception to the warrant requirement for searches to locate a driver’s identification following a traffic stop.” It also announced that Arturo D. “is overruled and should no longer be followed.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed the Court of Appeal’s decision and remanded for further review consistent with this opinion. See: People v. Lopez, 8 Cal. 5th 353 (2019).   

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