Oral Argument Preview: Legality of Warrantless Inventory Search of Legally Parked Car. State of Ohio v. Quasyshaun Leak.

Update: On January 20, 2016, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in this case.  Read the analysis here.

Read the analysis of the argument here.

On September 16, 2015, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case of State v. Leak, 2014-1273.  At issue in this case is whether a warrantless search of a legally parked car pursuant to the arrest of a passenger violates the search and seizure clauses of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution. This case is being argued in Sandusky County, at Fremont Ross High School, as part of the court’s off-site program.

Case Background

On August 8, 2012, Mansfield Police Officer Ryan Anshutz received a dispatch to locate Quayshaun Leak pursuant to an arrest warrant on a domestic violence charge. The officer testified that the dispatch included descriptions of Leak, his residence, and the make, model, color, and out-of-state license plate number of the vehicle Leak was supposed to be in. The officer found a legally parked car that matched the description he was looking for on a public road near Leak’s house. Upon approaching the car, the officer saw that there were two men in the front seat and a child in the back seat. The man in the front passenger seat was identified as Leak, and was subsequently arrested by the officer.

A computer search was conducted on the driver and turned up a valid license and no active warrants. However, believing that Leak was the owner of the car, the officer called to have the car impounded following Leak’s arrest. Then, pursuant to the Mansfield Police Department policy regarding vehicle impoundment, the officer conducted an inventory search of the car to record all of the valuables that were in it before it was towed. It was at this time that the officer found a loaded handgun under the passenger seat. Leak admitted the gun was his.

Leak filed a motion to suppress. The trial court overruled the motion, finding there was probable cause to arrest Leak, and that the inventory search was a legal search incident to arrest. Leak subsequently pled no contest to one charge of carrying a concealed weapon and one charge of improper handling of a firearm in a motor vehicle. He was found guilty on both charges, and received a fine, a suspended sentence, and thirty months of community control.

On appeal to the Fifth District Court of Appeals, Leak challenged the trial court’s ruling on the motion to suppress, as well as two issues regarding his sentencing which are not involved in this appeal. On the suppression issue, in a split decision written by Judge Sheila Farmer, joined by Judge Craig Baldwin, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling, holding that the inventory search prior to the tow was a valid search. The majority reasoned that the officer’s subjective belief at the time of the arrest that Leak owned the car was a sufficient reason to impound the vehicle and thus, conduct the inventory search pursuant to department policy. Judge Bill Hoffman dissented, and would grant the motion to suppress. To him, the inventory search should not have been conducted because the car was legally parked, the computer search turned up nothing, and there was no evidence to support the officer’s belief that Leak owned the car.

Key Precedent

Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution &  Article I Section 14, of the Ohio Constitution (The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized; Ohio provision virtually identical)

Mansfield Ordinance Chapter 307.01 (Authority to Impound) (Lists bases for police to remove and impound vehicles.)

Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967) (Searches and seizures conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment—subject to only a few specifically established and well delineated exceptions.)

South Dakota v. Opperman , 428 U.S. 364 (1976)( a routine inventory search of a lawfully impounded vehicle is not unreasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when performed pursuant to standard police practice and when the evidence does not demonstrate that the procedure involved is merely a pretext for an evidentiary search of the impounded vehicle.)

State v. Kessler, 53 Ohio St. 2d 204 (1978) (The burden of demonstrating the applicability of an exception to the warrant requirement is on the State.)

State v. Hathman, 65 Ohio St. 3d 403 (1992) (In order to satisfy the requirements of the Fourth Amendment an inventory search of a lawfully impounded vehicle must be conducted in good faith and in accordance with reasonable standardized procedures or established routine.)

State v. Goss, 2012-Ohio-857 (9th Dist.) It is reasonable that a vehicle can be lawfully impounded when the occupant of the vehicle is arrested).

Xenia v. Wallace, 37 Ohio St. 3d 216 (1988) (An inventory search of a vehicle, pursuant to impound, is a well-accepted exception to the warrant requirement.)

Leak’s Argument

Leak argues that his motion to suppress should have been granted because there was no valid reason to impound the car and thus, the warrantless inventory search was a violation of both state and federal search and seizure clauses. Absent a warrant or judicial approval, a valid search and seizure must be made pursuant to a recognized exception. According to Leak, there was no applicable exception that would have permitted the officer lawfully to search the car.

Leak first argues that the inventory exception does not apply because the impoundment of the vehicle itself was not lawfully authorized. After providing an exhaustive list of all the circumstances under which a Mansfield police officer has the authority to impound a vehicle, Leak states that under Mansfield Code of Ordinance 307.01, Officer Anshutz had no authority to impound the car in this case.

Additionally, Leak argues that the impoundment was not in accordance with department policy. Leak argues that because the officer indicated in his testimony that his sole reason for the impoundment was Leak’s arrest, the impoundment must comport with the community-caretaking role of the police. Leak asserts that the impoundment was not consistent with that role because of the lack of a reasonable connection between Leak’s arrest and the vehicle, as well as the lack of evidence that the vehicle posed a risk or hazard to the public. In Leak’s opinion, the impoundment served as a pretext for a search for evidence in furtherance of criminal investigation, thus violating the search and seizure clauses of the United States and Ohio Constitutions.

In sum, Leak maintains that Officer Anshutz did not have authority to impound the vehicle through either the Mansfield Code of Ordinance provision or department policy, and that the impoundment was not consistent with the community-caretaking role of the police. As such, the firearm found through the inventory search should have been suppressed.

State’s Argument

Procedural Hurdles for Leak

First, the State argues that Leak has waived his constitutional challenge by failing to assert that the impoundment violated the search and seizure clauses of the U.S. and Ohio Constitutions in his motion to suppress.

Second, the State argues that if Leak is not the owner of the car, he would not have standing to object to the search and seizure, and therefore, the appeal should be dismissed on those grounds.

Merits

The State goes on to argue that if the court decides to consider the merits of Leak’s search and seizure argument, it should affirm the Fifth District’s finding that the motion to suppress was correctly overruled. In support of this assertion, the State argues that the impoundment was consistent with the community-caretaking function of the police because it followed an arrest of an occupant of the vehicle and it was reasonable under the circumstances.

Additionally, the State argues that since Leak does not dispute the trial court’s finding that the search incident to arrest was valid independent of the inventory search pursuant to impoundment, the Fifth District’s ruling should be affirmed.

Leak’s Proposed Proposition of Law

Because the mere arrest of an occupant of a lawfully parked car should not automatically trigger police impoundment of that car, a warrantless inventory search conducted in such a scenario violates the Fourth amendment and Section 14, Article I of the Ohio Constitution.

Student Contributor: Danielle List

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