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Vehicle Registration Searches in California

When the police stop your car for an infraction, and you cannot find the registration for the car you’re driving, the police violate the 4th Amendment if they search your car for the registration without your consent.

Some examples of Vehicle Code infractions are: speeding, running a red light, not wearing a seatbelt, making an illegal U-Turn, brake light not working, etc ... If a cop stops your car to give you an infraction ticket, and searches your car without your consent to locate your license or registration, that violates the U.S. Constitution.

We had an interesting case where a driver was stopped for a brake light not working. The driver did not have (or could not find) his registration. The police, without consent, then searched the car for the registration. During the search, officers found drugs and paraphernalia, then immediately arrested the driver. The District Attorney charged the driver with Possession of a Controlled Substance and Possession of an Injection/Ingestion Device.

We contested the search of the vehicle as a violation the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution. The case was dismissed for the reasons discussed below.

Police Searches, Officer Training

As an Oakland Police Officer in 1974, we were trained that if there was probable cause to stop a vehicle for an infraction, we could conduct a search of the vehicle only if the driver consented to the search. We were trained that when we stopped vehicles to tell the driver the reason for the stop, and, if the driver looked suspicious, to ask them, “Do you have anything to hide?” The answer was virtually always, “No.” Then we’d ask, “Can we have permission to search your vehicle?” If the driver consented, we’d search the vehicle for drugs, weapons, and other indicia of criminal behavior. If driver refused consent, we were trained that we did not have authority to search the vehicle.

As criminal defense attorneys, we know people have a reasonable expectation of privacy under the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and that all police searches without a warrant are presumed illegal unless and until the prosecutor can prove to a judge in court the legal justification for the search.

In court, a defendant may request a Motion to Suppress Evidence hearing pursuant to P.C. 1538.5. At the hearing, the judge will receive evidence, and should ultimately rule that any evidence obtained as a result of an illegal search be suppressed (rendered inadmissible for trial). At the Motion to Suppress Evidence hearing, the prosecution bears the burden to prove all police searches were by warrant, or within the scope of a search warrant exception.

Consent / Giving Police Permission to Search Your Car

Consent is a search warrant exception. If a person consents to police searching their vehicle, that is all the justification police require.

The Automobile Exception

Another exception is, “The Automobile Exception.” Under the Automobile Exception, police may search a car when there is probable cause to believe evidence of a crime will be found inside the car.

Search Incidence to Valid Arrest

Another exception is, “Search Incident to Lawful Arrest.” After police arrest a person who was a recent occupant of a car, police may search that car if it is reasonable to believe the car contains evidence of the crime of arrest. This exception will not apply if the person was not arrested — and could not have been arrested — until after the search was conducted, and will also not apply if the crime of arrest is one of which corroborating evidence would be unlikely to be found inside the car.

History of Registration Searches in California

In People v. Martin (1972) 23 Cal.App.3d 444, the California Court of Appeal for the First District held: after police lawfully stopped a vehicle for an illegal license plate, and the driver was unable to produce the vehicle registration, police’s search of the vehicle for said registration was lawful, and the marijuana police found while doing so admissible evidence.

In People v. Webster (1991) 54 Cal.3d. 411, the California Supreme Court deemed a similar search lawful. In Webster,the defendant was stopped for speeding, failed to produce registration, and the officer searched the vehicle interior for the registration, finding a wallet containing the ID of a recent robbery victim. The judge upheld the search as lawful, citing Martin and others, and setting a clear precedent that police CAN search vehicles for registration when lawfully detained and registration not provided.

Then, in Knowles v. Iowa (1998) 525 U.S. 113, the United States Supreme Court reached a decision that appeared to contradict the holding of Webster. As such, the Webster rule authorizing Registration Searches should have been abolished then. In Knowles,the defendant was stopped for speeding, failed to produce registration, police searched his car for such, and found marijuana underneath the driver’s seat. The Court found the search to be unlawful, and suppressed the marijuana evidence.

In In re Arturo D. (2002) 27 Cal.4th 60, the California Supreme Court was again faced with a case in which police had searched a vehicle for registration under the Webster rule and found incriminating evidence. Arturo argued that Knowles v. Iowa required suppression of the evidence in his case. The California Supreme Court disagreed, distinguishing Arturo’s case from Knowles, and in doing so limited the ruling of Knowles. The Arturo D. courtinterpreted Knowles to mean only that a full search ofan entire vehicle, after a citation was issued, on the basis of a search for the vehicle’s registration should not be upheld as lawful. The court elaborated that limited searches, only of areas where a vehicle registration may reasonably be expected to be found, prior to issuance of a citation, were lawful under Webster.

Then, finally, in November 2019, the California Supreme Court in People v. Lopez (No. S238627) abolished this longstanding jurisprudence of Registration Searches which had existed since 1972! According to the court’s reasoning in Lopez, the main reason the California Supreme Court changed its mind was because no other state in the country had taken the view of the law that California had. No other state had legalized warrantless vehicle registration searches, and no other state had interpreted Knowles v. Iowa so narrowly. The court also reasoned that the Arturo D. rule permitting searches only of the areas where registration may reasonably be expected to be found was overbroad, and would likely authorize police to conduct full-scale limitless searches of areas such as: the entire passenger compartment, driver’s pockets, and purses since all of those places could reasonably contain a vehicle registration.

Following, People v. Lopez, police may no longer search a vehicle for ID or Vehicle Registration due to failure to produce such during a traffic stop!

If police searched your car and found incriminating evidence, a Motion to Suppress Evidence brought under People v. Lopez (No. S238627) could result in the dismissal of your case. Call Ivan O.B. Morse and Ryan L. Smith at Morse & Associates today to obtain a free consultation.

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