The Honorable John A. Boccabella of the Berks County Court of Common Pleas recently filed an opinion suppressing evidence that State Troopers discovered during an inventory search of a suspect’s vehicle following his arrest for suspicion of DUI. See Com. v. Andrew Pegler-Lynch, No. 0527-2013, (Ct. Com. Pl. Berks Co., Sept. 6, 2013). In doing so, the Court upheld a suspect’s privacy rights by limiting law enforcement’s ability to search for evidence of an impounded vehicle without a warrant.
On October 11, 2012, Pennsylvania State Troopers stopped the defendant after finding that the license plates on his vehicle were registered to a Honda, not the Chrysler that the defendant was driving. During the traffic stop, one of the Troopers testified that he smelled marijuana emanating from the defendant’s vehicle and noted that the defendant had glassy eyes. The defendant then failed the standard field sobriety test and was placed under arrest for suspicion of DUI. No drugs or weapons were found in his possession when he was placed in the back of the police car.
The Troopers then conducted an inventory search of the defendant’s vehicle prior to its towing. The Troopers found a razor blade, white straw, and some rolling papers. They also found marijuana and pills. The Troopers read the defendant his Miranda rights and read a “consent to search” form, which the defendant then signed. After the Defendant signed the form, the Troopers conducted another search of the vehicle and located 1,048 packets of heroin and some blue/green pills in a tool box in the trunk.
The defendant sought to suppress the evidence that the Troopers found during the vehicle inventory search. The Court noted that post-arrest impoundments of vehicles were upheld in the interests of public safety and efficient movement of traffic, where no one claimed ownership of the automobile, where items of value were observed by the police in plain view, and the automobile was located in a high-crime area. In such impoundment cases, the police may conduct an inventory search of the vehicle, but only to the extent necessary to protect the detained person’s property, to protect the police against theft claims, to prevent danger, or for vehicle identification purposes. The Court warned, however, that such inventory searches must be part of the police caretaking process for the vehicle rather than as an investigative function.
Here, the Court found that the Troopers had an improper motive in their search of the vehicle. Instead of preparing the vehicle for impoundment, they could have just entrusted the vehicle with the defendant’s mother and sister, who arrived at the scene shortly after the defendant’s arrest. Therefore, impoundment was unnecessary. Also, there were no objects in plain view that would prompt the Troopers to take an inventory of the items in the vehicle before impoundment. Thus, the Court found that the Troopers conducted an improper investigatory search without a warrant that led to the discovery of the straw, razor blade, marijuana, and pills.
The Court further found that the defendant’s signature on the consent to search form did not make the subsequent vehicle search legal. Relying on Com. v. Smith, 685 A.2d 1030 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1996), the Court found that there was no break between the illegal inventory search and the signing of the consent to search form. The consent form was tainted by the illegal initial inspection of the vehicle. As such, Judge Boccabella ordered that the evidence found during the inspection of the vehicle should be suppressed from admission at trial.