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Judge Rules Inventory Search Incident to Tow Unconstitutional and Suppresses Gun

Our client followed one of the most important rules when pulled over by the police while in possession of illegal contraband: deny all requests to search the vehicle and remain silent. By following that timeless advice, he enabled his attorney, Hyland Law, Ltd., to beat the case by successfully arguing a Motion to Quash Arrest and Suppress Evidence.

The facts of the case are as follows: our client, who was driving alone while in possession of a firearm, was pulled over by the police for Failure to Wear a Seatbelt. Upon the police activating their emergency lights, our client curbed his vehicle into a legal parking space. The officer approached the driver’s side window, at which time he ran our client’s license and insurance and confirmed he had a valid DL and no outstanding warrants.

Nonetheless, the officer was not satisfied to let our client continue about his day. Instead, the officer made several requests to search the vehicle. With each request, our client replied no. The officer grew more and more frustrated and after the fourth rejection, the officer muttered, “Ok, we will just tow your vehicle.” Why tow his vehicle? Because by doing so the officer can avoid that pesky requirement to obtain a warrant.

That’s right! An exception to the warrant requirement is an “Inventory Search Incident to Tow.” It may be the most used tactic by police to conduct non-consensual searches, second only to that magical phrase, “I detect an odor of cannabis coming from your vehicle.” Police may legally tow any arrestee’s vehicle if, when left unattended, it would obstruct traffic, be a danger to the public, or sit illegally parked.

Upon hearing the officer’s threat to tow, our client exited his vehicle, locked the doors, and began to walk away from his car. The officers immediately ordered him to stop and placed him under arrest for Obstruction of a Peace Officer. While our client’s decision to exit his vehicle and walk away during an active traffic stop is not one we would recommend, every other decision was commendable.

Upon placing our client in handcuffs and securing him in the backseat of the squad car, a tow truck was called and police began their inventory search of the vehicle. Police subsequently discovered a loaded, semi-automatic handgun from underneath the driver’s seat and our client was charged with three counts of Aggravated Unlawful Use of a Weapon.

Within days, Hyland Law was hired and a Motion to Quash Arrest and Suppress Evidence was filed on the basis that the search of the vehicle did not fall under the available justifications: 1) search incident to arrest and 2) inventory search incident to tow.

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the rights of persons to be secure from unreasonable search of their persons, houses, papers and effects. For a search of a person or a vehicle by police to be Constitutional, one of the following must be present: 1)Probable Cause that a crime has occurred and that the defendant committed the crime, 2)consent was provided by the suspect, or 3) a warrant was obtained by police.

In the instant case, there was no consent and there was no warrant. Thus, the only remaining basis is probable cause. However, the only crimes that probable cause existed our client committed was for Failure to Wear a Seatbelt and Obstruction of a Peace Officer. Does being arrested for either of these crimes justify the search of his vehicle? Lets take a look.

Searches of a defendant and the area of his immediate control incident to his arrest have long been held to be lawful. Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969); People v. Joyner, 50 Ill.2d 302 (1972). Furthermore, when the police have made a lawful arrest of an occupant of a vehicle, the officer may search the passenger compartment of the vehicle and any containers found within the passenger compartment as a search incident to arrest. New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 460 (1981).

However, the United States Supreme Court sharply limited searches incident to arrest involving vehicles in Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, (2009). In Gant, the court held that police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the vehicle’s passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of the arrest. Gant, 129 S.Ct. 1710 at 1723.

In this case, our client was arrested and immediately secured in handcuffs and placed into the backseat of a squad car. Thus, our client was not within reaching distance of the inside of his vehicle. Further, it was not reasonable to believe that the search of the vehicle would reveal additional evidence for Obstructing or not wearing a seatbelt. As a result, the search was unconstitutional under that basis as well.

But we are still not finished because as with every rule, there are exceptions. An inventory search of a lawfully impounded vehicle is a judicially created exception to the fourth amendment’s warrant requirement. People v. Hundley, 156 Ill.2d 135, 138 (1993). The public policy rationale to justify this exception is that inventory searches protect the owner’s property, protect the police against claims of lost or stolen property and protect the police from potential danger. People v. Gipson, 203 Ill.2d 298, 304 (2003). A valid inventory search furthers these objectives and satisfies the fourth amendment if the police procedures are reasonable and administered in good faith. People v. Clark, 394 Ill.App.3d 344, 348 (1st Dist. 2009).

For an inventory search of a vehicle to be lawful, the search must meet the following requirements: 1) The original impoundment of the vehicle is lawful; 2) The purpose of the search must be to protect the owner’s property and to protect the police from claims of lost, stolen or vandalized property and to guard the police from danger; 3) The search must be conducted in good faith pursuant to reasonable standardized police procedures and not as a pretext for an investigatory search. Illinois v. Lafayette, 462 U.S. 640 (1983)

Thus, the question to be asked in this case is “whether the impoundment of the vehicle was proper?” The courts have ruled that the fact that a defendant’s car would be left unattended is not, in and of itself, a sufficient reason to impound a vehicle, unless the vehicle is illegally parked. People v. Clark, 394 Ill.App.3d 344, 348 (1st Dist. 2009). To justify a tow the vehicle must impede traffic or “threaten public safety and convenience.” Clark, 394 Ill.App.3d at 344.

In this case, upon the police activating their emergency lights, our client pulled over into a legal parking space where his vehicle could be left overnight. Therefore, it was obvious that the tow of the vehicle was not for the safety of the public, but instead a tactic employed by the officer to get around that pesky Bill of Rights. After Hyland Law conducted their hearing, the Judge agreed and granted our motion to Suppress Evidence and excluded the handgun from being used as evidence.

The lesson: when pulled over by police while in possession of illegal contraband, never consent to a search and never provide an admission. If your vehicle is still searched and you catch a charge, call Hyland Law, Ltd. immediately and we will take the necessary steps to ensure that your rights are protected and you leave a free man.. When your freedom is at stake, only hire the best.

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