Can police impound and search your vehicle if you are arrested for a DUI?
If you are arrested for a DUI, a recent California court decision allows police to impound and search your vehicle.
The facts in the court case are that California Highway Patrol officers spotted a car on the Bay Bridge and estimated that it was traveling at a very high rate of speed eastbound on I-80. The officers paced the car’s speed at approximately 110 miles per hour as it exited the Bay Bridge and entered East I-580. The officers had the driver exit the freeway and park his vehicle on a city street in Oakland. The driver was the sole occupant of the vehicle.
Police detected an odor of an alcoholic beverage and asked some DUI related questions. After ultimately arresting the driver for a suspected DUI, the police placed the driver in their police car and decided that they would have the vehicle removed from the location where it was parked and stored for safekeeping, pursuant to California Vehicle Code Section 22651(h), rather than leave where the driver had stopped and parked.
An officer stated that he would not have removed the vehicle if a sober passenger been present to drive it safely away, or if it had been parked in or near the driver’s home neighborhood. The officer indicated that the vehicle, a Mercedes, was newer and that the driver had parked it in a neighborhood where vehicle thefts were common. The officer said that he would have removed any vehicle from the area where this vehicle was parked, because it was not a safe area to keep it parked. The other officer provided a similar statement. He justified moving the vehicle because it was a brand new Mercedes parked in an area known to be a “high crime area.”
Once the officers decided to move the vehicle, they conducted a search of it based on doing an inventory of its contents. During this search, they found a box that had three “large” bags of suspected marijuana, as well as a paper bag containing $50,000 in cash.
The driver’s defense attorney filed a motion to suppress the evidence. The motion was denied. The denial was affirmed (upheld) by the court of appeal. The court relied on the California Highway Patrol manual that advised officers to conduct an inventory after a custodial arrest when necessary to provide for the safekeeping of vehicles and the property that they may contain. The decision to remove the car, the court reasoned, was to protect the vehicle and its contents from theft. Therefore, the initial decision to remove the vehicle was reasonable under the United States Constitution, Fourth Amendment.