California Court Limits Inventory Searches of Vehicles

People V. Torres (2010)
The Court of Appeals of California, Fourth District, Division Three has issued an opinion that places important limits on vehicle searches conducted by police after a traffic stop.

The case (People v. Torres) pertains to an incident that involved Alfredo Torres, who was pulled over by an Orange County Sheriff's deputy for making an unsafe lane change and failing to signal a turn. After Torres admitted to the deputy that he didn't have a valid driver's license, the deputy got Torres's consent to search him and found four cell phones and nearly one thousand dollars cash. The deputy impounded the defendant's truck, waited for another officer to arrive, and then inventoried the contents of the truck, finding methamphetamine and a pay/owe sheet (typically used to track drug transactions). During a subsequent search of the defendant's home, police found a rifle, over one hundred thousand dollars cash, drugs, and narcotics trafficking equipment.

The defendant filed motions to suppress the evidence and dismiss the charges on the grounds that impounding the vehicle and conducting an inventory search were unlawful. (An inventory search is conducted by police when a car is impounded. The purpose is to provide documentation for the police and the defendant of the vehicle's contents.)

The motions to suppress evidence and dismiss charges were denied by the lower courts. The defendant then pleaded guilty to all the counts against him and was sentenced to three years in state prison. He subsequently filed an appeal with the California appellate court.

The Appellate Court's RulingThe appellate court stated that the traffic stop was lawful since the deputy witnessed the defendant committing the offenses.

However, the court ruled that the impounding of the vehicle and subsequent inventory search were unlawful since the deputy admitted during the preliminary hearing that his primary motivation for impounding the truck was to provide the opportunity to conduct an inventory search. In addition, the officer did not state that impounding the vehicle and conducting an inventory search were necessary under the "community caretaking function," which pertains to vehicles that are illegally parked or impeding traffic. 

Significance of Torres DecisionThe court in this case has defined an important limit on police authority to conduct inventory searches. Though police do have the authority in some circumstances to impound and search a vehicle, an inventory search is invalid when the decision to impound the vehicle is made as a ruse or pretext to search for narcotics or other evidence of illegal behavior.

Free and Confidential ConsultationIf you have been the subject of a traffic stop, vehicle impoundment, or inventory search, call me at (916) 442-1200 for a free and confidential consultation about your case.