July 30, 2013:
The Virginia Court of Appeals upheld a conviction by the Circuit Court of the City of Chesapeake. The Court of Appeals further found the Circuit Court’s denial of a motion to suppress illegal drugs seized from a vehicle during an inventory search by police was not in error. The vehicle was lawfully impounded, and thus, the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment right against illegal search and seizure.
While appellant was driving his vehicle, he was stopped by police officers because his high-mount brake light was not functioning. The court noted that, on appeal, appellant did not argue that should have had such a brake light, nor that the stop was unlawful. Upon closer inspection of the vehicle the, one of the officers noticed that the safety inspection sticker appeared to have been altered. Appellant agreed to get out of the car so officers could look at the sticker more closely and determine authenticity. Two officers determined that the sticker was issued to a different car. When confronted, appellant admitted it was a “hot sticker” and that he had obtained it to avoid submitting the car to safety inspection. The officer called a tow truck and subsequently began an inventory search. Illegal drugs were found in the console and the trunk. At trial, the officer testified that he could not issue a summons and let defendant go, as the brake light and the unknown safety status of the vehicle rendered it unfit for use on the roads.
Searches conducted outside of the judicial process, without a warrant, are considered per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. However, there are a few exceptions, one of which is the inventory search. The Virginia Supreme Court, in Reese v. Commonwealth, explained that the purpose of the inventory search is to protect owner property, protect the police against claims of lost or stolen property, and a variety of other reasons. Inventories are not investigatory in nature, and so do not implicate the same interests protected under the Fourth Amendment. However, the Virginia Supreme Court noted, any contraband or evidence of a crime uncovered during an inventory can be seized without a warrant and introduced at trial. The Virginia Court of Appeals cited to a previous case of its own, Williams v. Commonwealth, holding that police may do an inventory search if 1) the vehicle is lawfully impounded, 2) the impounding and subsequent search are done according to proper police procedure and 3) the impoundment and search are not in reality a pretext for improper investigatory motives.
At trial, appellant argued that the vehicle was unlawfully impounded, but on appeal, argued that the impoundment was not done according to the proper police standards. The Virginia Court of Appeals, noting that the second argument was not raised at trial, barred the issue on appeal. In response, appellant’s counsel contended that the challenge to the lawfulness of the impoundment encompassed all of the considerations noted in Williams. The court rejected this theory, holding that the three elements described in Williams were separate and distinct considerations.
In discussing the lawfulness of the impoundment, the court stated that the standard for the decision to impound is one of objective reasonableness. In the case at bar, during a legal stop, the testifying officer discovered that appellant had unauthorized possession of the safety inspection sticker on his vehicle. The court held it was reasonable for the officer to infer that appellant fraudulently possessed the sticker to avoid inspection of the vehicle. Virginia law requires inspection for the safety of its motorists. It was reasonable to infer, from the avoidance of inspection, that the car had a significant defect rendering it unsafe. Further, based on the fraudulent possession of the sticker, it was reasonable to infer that appellant did not intend to get the vehicle checked in the future to ensure the car was drivable. On this basis, the officer was reasonable in disallowing appellant to simply drive the car home. Additionally, when pulled over, appellant had parked the vehicle in the middle of the road, thus impeding traffic. As such, the officer was right to have the car impounded and the subsequent inventory search was lawful.