California Supreme Court Overturns Exception to Search Warrant Requirement

(CN) – The California Supreme Court on Monday overturned a 17-year-old warrant-requirement exception that allowed police to search a vehicle if the driver could not produce identification or registration. 

Split 4-3, the majority found that the desire of law enforcement to obtain identification does not override the illegal search and seizure provisions of the Fourth Amendment.

“We now hold the Fourth Amendment does not contain an exception to the warrant requirement for searches to locate a driver’s identification following a traffic stop,” Associate Justice Leondra Krueger wrote for the majority. 

The decision stems from a case involving a traffic stop of Maria Elena Lopez, who was pulled over by police after they received a report of a person driving erratically. After Lopez revealed she did not have a driver’s license on her person, the police searched the car in quest of it, found methamphetamine in Lopez’s purse and arrested her for drug possession and driving without a license. 

While illegal in other states, California did allow police to search vehicles if motorists were unable to furnish the license or registration, relying on a 2002 California Supreme Court decision that created what is known as the Arturo exception.

Monday’s majority decision said the Arturo exception was no longer tenable given several rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in the intervening period. 

“After considering both further guidance from the United States Supreme Court and the practices of every other state in the nation, we conclude the time has come to correct a misperception of the constraints of the Fourth Amendment in this context,” Krueger wrote. 

The justices said they recognized several police departments had relied on the carve-out when crafting their search policies but that law enforcement agencies will have to craft a different approach to the issue. 

“Inasmuch as subsequent legal developments have called the validity of the traffic-stop identification-search exception into question, the change in approach is warranted,” Krueger wrote. “The reliance interests at stake cannot justify continuation of a practice that results in recurring and unwarranted invasions of individual privacy.”

Apart from the broader implications of the ruling, it also means the methamphetamine seized by police during their traffic stop of Lopez will be suppressed as the case returns to trial court. 

The trial court initially suppressed the evidence during the first go-around of the trial soon after Lopez was arrested in July 2014. The state appealed the suppression, noting the Arturo exception.

A three-judge panel from the Third Appellate District in California ruled that if the Arturo exception “was still good law” then the police appropriately relied on the lack of identification as probable cause for the search. 

Justice Ming Chin wrote the dissenting opinion. The minority included Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

“The failure of a court to adhere to its precedents undermines the court’s credibility as a judicial body,” Chin wrote. 

Aside from consistency, Chin said California’s Arturo exception was correct on the merits. 

The minority noted the Fourth Amendment only protects citizens against “unreasonable” seizure and it is reasonable for police to try to verify the identity of a driver, particularly given the prevalence of people trying to avoid identification by hiding their wallets or providing false names, the dissenters argued. 

“If a law enforcement officer pulls over a vehicle for a traffic violation and the driver, when asked, is unable to produce identification documents, despite state law requiring drivers to carry such documentation, or if the driver produces documents that appear to be false or to belong to different person, then a limited search of places in the vehicle where the driver may have hidden a wallet while slowing to a halt is reasonable,” Chin wrote.

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