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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Warrantless Search of Legally Parked Car Violated Man’s Constitutional Rights

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled today that the arrest of an occupant of a legally parked car does not by itself justify automatic impoundment of that car; and a warrantless inventory search of the car violated the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution.

The opinion, authored by Justice William M. O’Neill, relies on U.S. Supreme Court rulings that the Fourth Amendment determines the reasonableness of a search based on the totality of the circumstances of each case. In this case Justice O’Neill concludes that the warrantless search of the car Leak was sitting in prior to his arrest cannot reasonably be classified as a lawful search incident to arrest. He also concludes that because the police lacked the authority to lawfully impound the car, the search cannot be classified as an inventory search conducted pursuant to the police’s community caretaking function.

The ruling grants Quayshaun Leak’s motion to suppress the gun as evidence against him, vacates Leak’s weapons convictions, and reverses the Fifth District Court of Appeals decision finding the search was reasonable.

Leak’s Arrest
In August 2012, the Richland County Sheriff’s Office issued an arrest warrant for Leak based on domestic violence charges. Mansfield police assisted the county by dispatching an officer to the area where Leak lived. The officer had a description of the car Leak was reported to be in, but the officer did not have a copy of the warrant or any information on where the alleged domestic violence dispute took place. Near Leak’s apartment, the officer spotted a car parked behind another car in a cul-de-sac in what appeared to be an attempt to conceal the vehicle. Leak was seated in the passenger seat. The officer ordered him out of the car, arrested him, and placed him in the back of his patrol car.

The officer ran a check on the driver and found a clean driving record. He then removed the driver and another passenger from the vehicle and called for a tow truck to impound the car. He searched the vehicle and found the gun, which Leak admitted was his. Leak was charged with weapons violations and at the trial court, he asked to suppress the evidence of the gun asserting the search of car violated his U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment rights against illegal searches and seizures. At a suppression hearing, the arresting officer testified he was not certain who owned the car, but said he ordered it to be towed because he believed Leak owned it. He stated it was department policy to conduct an “inventory search” before a car is towed to account for all the items in it. He also testified that in situation like Leak’s, he searches cars for evidence of a crime because he does not know where the alleged domestic violence happened.

The trial court denied Leak’s motion to suppress and found that because Leak was arrested on a warrant, the inventory search was proper. Leak then entered a no contest plea to carrying a concealed weapon and improper handling of a firearm for which he was placed on 30 months’ community control and fined $1,500.

He appealed his conviction to the Fifth District Court of Appeals arguing the trial court wrongly denied his motion to suppress the gun. In a 2-1 decision, the appellate court reasoned that Leak had been identified with the car, and that at the time of the arrest the officer had a reasonable belief Leak owned it, which gave the police sufficient justification to impound and inventory the car. Leak appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Search Must Be Reasonable, Court Rules
Leak asserted that the search violated both his Fourth Amendment rights and rights against unreasonable search and seizures guaranteed by the Ohio Constitution’s Article 1, Section 14. Justice O’Neill wrote the key to determining whether a search is reasonable turns on the facts of each case, and that the Fourth Amendment only allows warrantless searches in certain circumstances. He cited two exceptions that Mansfield police could claim to search the vehicle: a search incident to a lawful arrest, and an inventory search conducted as part of the police’s “community caretaking” duties.

For a search incident to an arrest, an officer can search when a recent vehicle occupant has been arrested, and if that person is unsecured and within reaching distance of the vehicle. The search can also take place if the officer reasonably believes the vehicle contains evidence of the crime that led to the arrest, Justice O’Neill explained. In Leak’s case, he was already secured in the patrol car when the search started so the only justification for the officer to conduct a search was the belief the car contained evidence that led to his arrest for domestic violence.

Justice O’Neill wrote the arresting officer was not the one who obtained the warrant and did not know any of the specifics relating to the charges. Because the officer had no idea if the car was involved in the charges leading to domestic violence, he had no reason to believe the car contained any evidence related to the charge, he determined.

“There is nothing in the record that could have established a connection between the car that Leak was sitting in prior to his arrest and the offense for which he was arrested,” Justice O’Neill wrote.

Community Caretaking Inventory Searches Cannot Be Related to Criminal Investigation
The Court also found the officer did not conduct a valid inventory search pursuant to a lawful towing of the vehicle. Justice O’Neill noted the police frequently take vehicles into custody as part of their community caretaking function. Police impound vehicles for a number of reasons including those involved in accidents, violating parking ordinances, stolen or abandoned, and unable to be lawfully driven.

Under these circumstances inventory searches are performed to protect property while the vehicle is in custody and to protect the police from claims of lost or stolen property as well as against danger from items in the car, Justice O’Neill explained. Mansfield city code lists 11 specific circumstances when a vehicle can be towed away and an inventory search conducted. The Court decided none of the 11 specific circumstances authorized the police to lawfully impound the vehicle Leak was sitting in prior to his arrest. 

The officer claimed he had the car towed because he was following department policy. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1987 Colorado v. Bertine decision, Justice O’Neill determined it is legally possible to impound a vehicle based on department policy as long as the police use standard criteria based on something “other than suspicion of criminal activity” to develop the search policy. In this case the officer testified it was department policy to tow the car if the owner was arrested, however, Justice O’Neill observed that the record in this case did not include evidence of the department requiring a tow when the owner of a vehicle is arrested. Further, he wrote that the officer testified the he was looking for evidence of crime because he did not know where the domestic violence occurred. The Court concluded that this testimony undermined any claim that the search was separate from a criminal investigation. The Court decided the officer was not looking for valuables to safeguard, but was searching for evidence to use against Leak.

“This is precisely the type of governmental intrusion the Fourth Amendment seeks to prohibit,” Justice O’Neill wrote.

Justices Judith Ann Lanzinger and Sharon L. Kennedy concurred with the opinion, and Justice Judith L French concurred in judgment only.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer and Terrence O’Donnell dissented and would have dismissed the case as improvidently allowed.

2014-1273. State v. Leak, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-154.

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Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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