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Court News Ohio

Search of Truck That Revealed Illegal Gun Found Constitutional

Image of a white pickup truck.

Court finds a Hamilton County sheriff’s search of a truck that turned up a gun did not violate the driver’s constitutional rights.

Image of a white pickup truck.

Court finds a Hamilton County sheriff’s search of a truck that turned up a gun did not violate the driver’s constitutional rights.

A Hamilton County deputy discovered a gun when conducting an “inventory search” of a truck driven by a man with a suspended driver’s license. The officer’s explanation of his department’s search policy combined with body-camera video of the stop led the Supreme Court of Ohio to rule today that the search did not violate the driver’s constitutional rights.

In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court reversed a First District Court of Appeals decision that found a Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office deputy violated Jamie Toran’s federal constitutional right against unreasonable searches when the deputy went through the truck owned by Toran’s mother. The Court reinstated Toran’s original 2019 conviction for gun-related crimes and his sentence of five years of community control.

The First District ruled that the gun could not be used as evidence against Toran because Deputy Kevin Singleton failed to provide the trial court with evidence of a sheriff’s office policy on conducting inventory searches once a vehicle is impounded and that he followed the policy.

Writing for the Court majority, Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy stated that Singleton’s testimony about the sheriff’s office policy and the body-camera footage documenting Singleton’s inventory search had established that a policy existed and that he followed the policy in good faith. That evidence led the Court majority to find the search was reasonable, making it lawful under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Justices R. Patrick DeWine and Michael P. Donnelly joined the chief justice’s opinion. Second District Court of Appeals Judge Ronald C. Lewis, sitting for Justice Joseph T. Deters, also joined the opinion.

Eighth District Court of Appeals Judge Sean Gallagher, sitting for Justice Patrick F. Fischer, joined Chief Justice Kennedy’s opinion and issued a written concurring opinion. Judge Gallagher maintained that the Supreme Court should not have considered Toran’s argument about the lawfulness of the impoundment because Toran had not raised the impoundment issue during the lower court proceedings – only issues with the search. Had the sheriff’s department known the lack of documentation would be contested, it could have addressed the issue during the trial court’s hearing to suppress the evidence from the search, Judge Gallagher wrote.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Melody Stewart wrote that for the deputy to conduct the inventory search, he had to impound the car legally. She stated that Singleton did not prove he followed a department or county policy for conducting an inventory search, nor did he prove he legally impounded the truck, especially since the vehicle's owner, who had a valid driver’s license, was on her way to obtain her vehicle.

Justice Jennifer Brunner joined Justice Stewart’s dissent.

Driver Stopped and Vehicle Searched
Singleton was on patrol in 2019 when he stopped Toran for improperly displaying a temporary license plate. Singleton learned Toran’s license had been suspended since 2016 and cited him for driving under a suspended license. The truck was legally parked on the street, but Singleton determined the vehicle needed to be towed and impounded under the sheriff’s office policy because Toran could not legally drive it.

Singleton then conducted an inventory search, which was captured by his body camera. He discovered a loaded handgun in the truck’s right door panel. He arrested Toran. He secured the gun by removing the ammunition and placed the weapon into a folder and the ammunition in a separate clear bag. He then put the two items into a clear bag marked “evidence/property.” He resumed the truck search, found medication belonging to Toran, and placed the medication into a separate folder. He put all the evidence he collected into the trunk of his cruiser.

Toran was indicted on felony counts of carrying a concealed weapon, improperly handling a firearm in a motor vehicle, and illegally possessing a weapon.

Driver Seeks to Exclude Evidence
Toran asked the trial court to suppress the evidence of the gun because Singleton’s search of his truck violated his rights under the U.S. and Ohio constitutions. Singleton testified that “our policy is” to do an inventory search when a driver cannot leave the scene because of their status as an unlicensed driver. He explained he had conducted inventory searches in the same manner for 20 years, and the goal is to establish the vehicle’s condition and any damages to it before it is towed as well as to account for the valuables in the car.

The trial judge observed the footage of the search and concluded that the sheriff’s department did have a policy for conducting inventory searches and that Singleton followed it. The judge denied the motion to suppress, and Toran later pleaded no contest to the crimes.

Toran appealed his conviction to the First District, arguing the trial court should have suppressed the gun because the search of the truck without a search warrant violated his constitutional rights. Although the First District held the traffic stop was lawful, the appellate court ruled the search was not reasonable under the Fourth Amendment because there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate the inventory search was conducted in accordance with the department’s standardized procedures.

The Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office appealed the First District’s decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Supreme Court Analyzed Rules for Searching Impounded Vehicle
Chief Justice Kennedy explained the Fourth Amendment bars unreasonable searches and requires the government to get a warrant to conduct a search. There are exceptions to obtaining a warrant, and a reasonable inventory search is one of them, she wrote.

An inventory search is part of law enforcement’s “community caretaking function,” and is intended to protect an owner’s property while it is in police custody; ensure against claims of lost, stolen, or vandalized property; and guard police from danger, the opinion stated.

Because an inventory search is intended to secure and protect vehicles and their contents, an officer must conduct the search in good faith and not for the sole purpose of investigating a vehicle to determine if a crime has been committed, the opinion explained. Based on prior Court decisions, an inventory search without a warrant is legal if it follows standardized procedures or an established routine.

The Court ruled the county was not required to submit its inventory search policy in writing to the trial court to establish that the policy existed and noted numerous state and federal courts across the country have ruled similarly. The trial court could rely on Singleton’s testimony and the bodycam footage.

“However, prosecutors should be mindful that submitting a written policy as evidence would certainly assist judges in determining the reasonableness of an inventory search,” the opinion stated.

The Court stated that Toran took issue with Singleton’s impoundment of the truck and using the impoundment to justify the inventory search. The opinion stated that the validity of the impoundment was not raised in the lower courts. The Court stated it was only considering the First District’s reason for overturning the trial court, which was whether Singleton established the county had an inventory search policy; he explained when the policy is to be followed; and he showed he followed it.

Singleton testified about when vehicles are impounded and inventory searches are conducted. He explained it was required because Toran was driving with a suspended license. He conducted the inventory search and discovered the gun and medication, which he collected and secured. Because he acted in accordance with department policy, and not with the sole purpose of investigating the truck to determine if Toran committed a crime, the search was lawful, the Court concluded.

Dissent Questioned Validity of Search
In her dissent, Justice Stewart wrote that the law is straightforward and required the impoundment to be legal in order for the inventory search to be legal. She stated that both the impoundment and the inventory search must follow established policies and procedures.

The dissent noted that the impoundment procedure, as articulated by Singleton, did not include any specific information that would make his actions legal.

“Deputy Singleton offered no statute, ordinance, or policy of the sheriff’s department evincing a community-caretaking rationale for impounding and subsequently searching the vehicle,” she wrote.

The dissent also noted the prosecutor asserted that the truck could be impounded under R.C. 4513.61. But the law does not support the argument, the dissent stated, because the truck was legally parked on a residential street for a few minutes, not the 48 hours the statute demands, and it was not impeding traffic. Singleton provided no facts to demonstrate why Toran’s mother could not retrieve her vehicle.

Singleton articulated a “general, sweeping policy” that would be too broad to meet “the rigorous standards of the Fourth Amendment,” the dissent noted. While the dissent agreed with the Court majority that the state did not need to provide written documentation of the impoundment and search policies, the state did need to provide proof of the departmental policies and how the deputy complied with them. Because the impoundment was improper, the inventory search was improper. And even if the impoundment was proper, the inventory search was improper as the state did not demonstrate how it followed a department policy or statute, the dissent concluded.

2022-1203. State v. Toran, Slip Opinion No. 2023-Ohio-3564.

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