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California Court of Appeal Explains ‘Automobile Exception’ and ‘Plain-View Seizure’ Doctrines, Rules Warrantless Seizure of Defendant’s Vehicle Parked on Friend’s Property Violates Fourth Amendment

by Anthony W. Accurso

The Court of Appeal of California, Third Appellate District, ordered the suppression of evidence obtained from defendant’s vehicle parked on private property belonging to a family friend after police seized it without a warrant for that location, concluding that the automobile exception to the warrant requirement doesn’t apply.

Joseph Denner told Stanislaus County sheriff’s deputies that he met the defendant, Donald Rorabaugh, when Rorabaugh was on top of Edward Magana, punching him in the face repeatedly, not far from the 108 Bar in Riverbank. When Denner attempted to intervene, he alleged that Rorabaugh claimed to have a gun and forced him to help transport Magana in the trunk of a car. They drove Magana to a canal in the early morning hours of May 24, 2015, and dumped the body, which was discovered early the next morning. Surveillance video from a local business showed a light-colored Cutlass traveling in the vicinity of the 108 Bar on the night in question during the timeframe of the beating.

A few days later, on May 28, sheriff’s deputies obtained a search warrant for the homes of Denner and Rorabaugh, including “unknown vehicles” at these addresses. The deputies arrested Rorabaugh at his home and learned his car — the Cutlass investigators suspected was connected to the murder of Magana — was parked a couple miles away on a ranch belonging to a family friend, David Christensen. The Cutlass was parked on Christensen’s property approximately 200 yards from his house; he had a long-term arrangement with Rorabaugh’s family that they could park their vehicles on his property; the property was accessible only via a private driveway about three-quarters of a mile long; and Christensen didn’t have keys to the Cutlass or have any ownership interest in it.

Upon learning of the Cutlass’ location, deputies immediately went to Christensen’s property. Without first obtaining a warrant for the seizure of the Cutlass from Christensen’s property or asking his permission, deputies advised him that they were there to tow the car. They then seized it and towed it to headquarters.

DNA evidence linking Rorabaugh to Magana’s murder was recovered from the Cutlass, which he sought to suppress. The trial court denied his pretrial suppression motion, ruling that the case fell “squarely within” the automobile exception. At trial, Denner presented his version of events, which the prosecution argued was bolstered by Magana’s DNA in the Cutlass. The jury found him guilty of first degree murder, and the court sentenced him to 25 years to life in prison.

On appeal, Rorabaugh argued that the trial court erred in denying his suppression motion. Noting that the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits warrantless searches and seizures, the Court of Appeal entertained arguments by the People regarding two exceptions to the warrant requirement: (1) the automobile exception and (2) the instrumentality exception.

The Court began its analysis with a lengthy discussion of the automobile exception, which permits the warrantless search of an automobile if police have probable cause to suspect the automobile in question contains evidence or contraband. Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42 (1970). It noted that the rationale for the exception is the ease with which an automobile can be moved out of the jurisdiction before a warrant could be secured. Id.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the application of the automobile exception to the warrantless seizure and search of a defendant’s vehicle parked in plain view in his driveway when he had already been arrested inside his home. Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443 (1971). The Coolidge Court acknowledged that police had “probable cause” with respect to the vehicle, “but no exigent circumstance justified the police in proceeding without a warrant.” It explained that the “underlying rationale” for the automobile exception is the impracticability of taking the time to obtain a warrant for an automobile because it can quickly be moved out of the jurisdiction while awaiting a warrant, i.e., the opportunity to search is “fleeting.” Id. The Coolidge Court explained that since the defendant was already under arrest, the rationale underlying the automobile exception wasn’t applicable because police had ample time to get a warrant. It also instructed: “The word ‘automobile’ is not a talisman in whose presence the Fourth Amendment fades away and disappears.”

The Coolidge Court also rejected the Government’s argument that the defendant’s vehicle was an “instrumentality of the crime” that could be seized without a warrant because it was in plain view. Under the plain view doctrine: (1) plain view alone is insufficient to justify a warrantless seizure of evidence, (2) police must not be violating the Fourth Amendment by being present at the location in which the item in question is in plain view, (3) the item’s incriminating nature must be immediately apparent, and (4) police must have a lawful right of access to the item itself. Coolidge; Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128 (1990). The Coolidge Court explained that the incriminating nature of the defendant’s vehicle only became apparent after it was searched and microscopically examined, and thus, its incriminating nature was not “immediately apparent.”

The Court stated that the Fourth Amendment protects different interests when dealing with a search rather than a seizure. Horton. The Horton Court explained: “A search compromises the individual interest in privacy; a seizure deprives the individual of dominion over his or her person or property.” In Collins v. Virginia, 138 S. Ct. 1663 (2018), the Supreme Court ruled that “the automobile exception does not permit an officer without a warrant to enter a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein.” In doing so, the Collins Court reaffirmed the “plain-view seizure” principles articulated in Horton and its progeny, according to the Court.

The Court summed up the foregoing legal rules governing “plain-view seizure” as follows: “[I]f (a) police do not have an otherwise lawful right of access to an unattended car on private property, and (b) it is not impracticable to obtain a warrant, then (c) warrantless seizure of the car accomplished by trespassing on private property (and subsequently searching the car at another location) is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and does not fall within the automobile exception, even if there is probable cause to search it.”

Turning to the present case, the Court concluded that the trial court should have granted Rorabaugh’s suppression motion. The Court explained that, like in Collins, the deputies didn’t have a lawful right of access to Rorabaugh’s Cutlass located on Christensen’s property with his knowledge and consent. By entering his property without a warrant or consent, the deputies were trespassing and thus not lawfully at the location where they seized the vehicle. 

There’s also nothing in the record to indicate that it was impracticable to obtain a warrant prior to seizing the Cutlass once investigators located it, according to the Court. Like in Coolidge, there wasn’t any risk that the vehicle in question would have been moved outside the jurisdiction while police secured a warrant since Rorabaugh was already under arrest and in police custody at the time his vehicle was seized and towed and Christensen didn’t have a key to it. Thus, the Court ruled that the warrantless seizure of Rorabaugh’s vehicle violated his Fourth Amendment rights because the automobile exception is inapplicable under the facts of this case.

The Court then addressed the People’s argument that the warrantless seizure of Rorabaugh’s vehicle is permissible under the instrumentality of the crime exception to the warrant requirement because it was in plain view. The Court quickly rejected the argument by explaining that the police were not lawfully at the location where they seized the vehicle. Coolidge. Consequently, the instrumentality of the crime in plain view exception is inapplicable, the Court concluded.  

The Court then turned to the issue of whether the trial court’s error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, i.e., whether the allowance of evidence obtained from the Cutlass in violation of the Fourth Amendment likely had an effect on the outcome of the trial. Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967). The People bears the burden of proof. People v. Ford, 56 Cal. App. 5th 385 (2020). The Court stated that the prosecutor referred to evidence in question during closing remarks and that it was used to bolster the testimony of Denner, whose version of events conflicted with Rorabaugh’s. For those reasons, the Court concluded that the People failed to carry their burden, and thus, the error was not harmless.

Accordingly, the Court vacated Rorabaugh’s conviction and remanded the case with directions to the trial court to grant his suppression motion. See: People v. Rorabaugh, 74 Cal. App. 5th 296 (2022). 

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