Update: On January 20, 2016, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in this case. Read the analysis here.
On September 16, 2015, the Supreme Court of Ohio heard oral argument in the case of State v. Leak, 2014-1273. At issue is whether the arrest of the occupant of a legally parked car properly triggers a warrantless inventory search and tow of the car. This case was argued in Sandusky County, at Fremont Ross High School, as part of the court’s off-site program.
Mansfield Police Officer Ryan Anshutz received a dispatch to help the county sheriff’s office locate Quayshaun Leak pursuant to an arrest warrant on a domestic violence charge. 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 on the domestic violence charge.
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 that the search was an inventory search incident to towing the car. 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.
The Fifth District Court of Appeals affirmed the suppression issue in a split decision written by Judge Sheila Farmer, joined by Judge Craig Baldwin. The majority held that the inventory search prior to the tow was a valid search, reasoning 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.
Read the oral argument preview of the case here.
At Oral Argument
Eric M. Hedrick, Assistant State Public Defender for Appellant Quayshaun Leak
Clifford Murphy, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney for Richland County, for the Appellee State of Ohio
An arrest warrant does not give officers a free pass to search a legally parked car. Warrantless searches are per se unreasonable and prohibited unless a valid exception to the warrant requirement applies. The burden of demonstrating an exception to the warrant requirement is on the state and in this case it cannot do so. While admittedly there is an exception to the warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment when an officer is engaged solely in a community caretaking role, such as the necessity of seizing a vehicle that is impeding traffic or threatening public safety, here the officer was engaged in conducting a criminal investigation, not a community caretaking role. Nothing in the Mansfield City Code authorized impoundment in this circumstance. Furthermore, the officer involved did not testify about the department’s policy. He testified that he believed he was authorized to search the vehicle because he arrested the owner.
In this case the defendant was already arrested and secured in the back seat of the police cruiser before this search took place. While it was completely reasonable for the officer to identify and locate Leak, there was nothing to authorize a search of that vehicle at that point. The officer had knowledge that there was a warrant for Leak’s arrest, he effectuated that arrest, and once he did that, his job was done.
If the tow had been legal, the inventory search would have been good, but the tow was not legal in this case. The car was legally parked and the officer was not engaged in any community caretaking role here.
The record in this case is clear on some points but not on others. For example, the record never establishes who owned the car that was towed. What is clear is that the officer in this case was working with the sheriff’s department to find an individual with an open domestic violence warrant. Mansfield Police policy permits the tow of a car when effectuating an arrest. The community caretaking role is a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. Pursuant to that role, an officer has the discretion not to leave a vehicle on the side of the road where items may be stolen or taken from the vehicle when the occupant is arrested. In this case, once the arrest was effectuated, the community caretaking role kicked in.
In this case, the officer believed in good faith that the car that was towed belonged to the defendant. And precedent from the Ninth District Court of Appeals holds that a vehicle can be lawfully impounded when the occupant of the vehicle is arrested.
What Was On Their Minds
Whose Car Was it?
Did the officer believe at the time that the car belonged to Leak, asked Chief Justice O’Connor? Was there any evidence in the record that he knew at the time that assumption was wrong? (Professor’s note—during the argument both sides agreed that there was nothing in the record about who owned the car, but outside the record, Leak did not own the car)
Who owned the car, asked Justice O’Donnell?
Leak was just the passenger when the officer arrived, asked Justice French?
The Reasonableness of the Officer’s Conduct
Would it be reasonable for an officer to believe that the passenger was actually the person who owned the car, asked Justice French?
What was the unreasonable conduct here asked Justice O’Donnell? To approach the vehicle and conduct the search and order the car towed?
Aren’t we here on whether the officer acted reasonably based on the information he knew at the time, asked Justice O’Neill? What was unreasonable about effecting the arrest, towing the car, and conducting an inventory of the car?
Is it the state’s position that it would be within Fourth Amendment reasonableness for an officer executing a warrant for an arrest, and finds the individual to be arrested in a car, automatically to tow that car, asked Justice Lanzinger? Or is there some discretion in whether or not to tow the car after an arrest?
What Should the Officer Have Done with the Car?
Should the officer have just left the vehicle there, asked Justice O’Donnell? Who should have had the keys at that point? Should the officer have just abandoned the car? If he had done so, and it was stolen or vandalized, then what?
Towing the Car
So the issue is should he have towed the car, asked Justice French? How was this tow not legal?
Can a police officer while arresting somebody, tow away a legally parked car that is in front of his residence that has not been used in a crime, asked Justice O’Neill? Has this court ever ruled that a legally parked car can be towed? What gives an officer the authority to take a legally parked car? Is the state asking this court to give the Mansfield police department the unfettered authority to tow any legally parked car that belongs to someone being arrested? Was the fact that the vehicle had out-of-state license plates significant?
Mansfield Police Policy
Did the guidelines from the officer’s own local police office give him any leeway to decide when a car should be towed, asked Justice French?
Is the Mansfield policy reasonable, asked Justice Lanzinger? Does it comport with the Fourth Amendment?
Does the Mansfield police department policy vest any discretion in an officer not to order an inventory tow, asked Justice O’Donnell?
Nexus Between the Car and the Crime
Would it have been different if the warrant had been for transporting drugs, asked Justice Lanzinger? Where a car might have been involved in the offense?
Was there any connection between the charge and the vehicle, asked Justice French?
Search Incident to Arrest
There is plenty of case law that says search incident to arrest is appropriate, commented Chief Justice O’Connor, although the prosecutor later made it very clear that no one had argued that theory. Justice French also wanted to be clear that the court was not dealing with that issue, and the prosecutor repeated it was not.
Parked on Public or Private Property
Does the location of the car matter, asked Justice Pfeifer?
Does it matter if the car was parked in a public or private place, asked Justice O’Neill? Justice O’Donnell asked the same thing.
Community Caretaking Role
What happened to the child that was in the car, asked Chief Justice O’Connor? Is this a situation in which once the arrest occurred, this turned into a community caretaking role of the officer to secure that vehicle? Once the arrest was effectuated, then the community caretaking role became the primary motivation for this officer to deal with this vehicle?
Did this officer know that the defendant had abducted this child, asked Justice French? (answer: no.)
Is the state’s strongest argument the community caretaking role, asked Justice O’Neill?
How it Looks From The Bleachers
To Professor Bettman
Like a win for the state, but the court here isn’t going to give the police carte blanche to tow a lawfully parked car. I think the court will decide the case based on the community caretaking function. I think the Chief telegraphed this when she asked defense counsel in rebuttal if he would agree that this could be a situation where an arrest is effected and then the officer’s activity turned into the community caretaking role. He did not agree, but that is the direction I think the court is going to go in. And I think the fact that there was a small child in the car could be the hook on which to hang that community caregiving function.
Justice O’Donnell most clearly found the policy of inventory search, then tow completely reasonable. I always thought it was standard policy to impound a vehicle after an arrest only if the vehicle could not be taken by anyone at the scene, but I am not knowledgeable about this. I’m also puzzled as to why search incident to lawful arrest wasn’t a basis for what happened, but it was clear that was not on the table.
Justice O’Neill seemed most sympathetic to the defense position. Unfortunately defense counsel did not make has points effectively, and was nearly ten minutes into his argument before he was really clear about what he was arguing. I think he conceded too many points. Justice O’Neill made his points more effectively for him in questioning the prosecutor.
To Student Contributor Danielle List
Defense counsel got off to a shaky start by conceding not only that it was reasonable for the officer to believe the car was owned by Leak, but also that there was no information to suggest that anyone but Leak owned the car. Justice French tried to help him by noting that Leak was sitting in the passenger seat, but defense counsel didn’t seem to recognize or make use of this lifeline. Instead, curiously, defense counsel proceeded only to further justify the reasonableness of the officer’s belief that Leak owned the car by adding that the car was parked and that no one was operating the vehicle at the time of arrest. Noticeably absent from the argument was any mention of the presence of the individual who was in the driver’s seat and for whom the officer ran a license search.
In light of this odd course of argument, Justice O’Neill tried to pinpoint exactly at what point the officer’s conduct became unreasonable. To this point, defense counsel identified the officer’s decision to tow the car after he effectuated the arrest of Leak. Accordingly, he argued that the officer had no authorization to tow the car, which in turn made the tow and related search unreasonable. Defense counsel then fought off challenges that the officer was authorized through the community-caretaking role by keying in on the fact that as a legally parked vehicle in a cul-de-sac, the car posed no risk to the community so as to require a tow.
Although not the most astute observation, the prosecutor’s opening statement for the State acknowledging that “the record in this case is clear on certain points and it’s not clear on other points,” ended up being an accurate description for the case in general. In particular, the prosecutor’s argument was plagued with information from outside the record, including facts about the underlying domestic violence charge and language from the Mansfield Department Policy which instructs officers to tow a vehicle upon the arrest of any occupant. While the only evidence of this in the record is the officer’s testimony, this policy, which seems to be an offshoot of the community-caretaking role, provides the authority the officer needed to tow the vehicle. The prosecutor seemed to waffle on whether the policy mandated that an officer always tow a car when an occupant is arrested, but ultimately settled on the answer that an officer has some discretion in the decision.
It’s unfortunate that the record in this case is so unclear because I think there is a very important constitutional question posed. However, I predict that the court will side with the prosecution on this issue so long as it doesn’t interpret the Mansfield Police Department Policy as mandating a police officer to tow a vehicle when any occupant is arrested, irrespective of the surrounding circumstances. Instead, I think it’s likely that the court will hold that the officer was acting pursuant to the policy and the community-caretaking role when he conducted the search.