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California Supreme Court Narrows Exception to the Fourth Amendment’s Warrant Requirement

Dec 3, 2019

On November 25, 2019, the California Supreme Court overturned a 17-year-old exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. People v. Lopez holds “that the desire to obtain a driver’s identification following a traffic stop does not constitute an independent, categorical exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.” People v. Lopez, No. S238627, 2019 WL 6267367, at *1 (Cal. Nov. 25, 2019). Before Lopez, police were “allowed … to conduct warrantless vehicle searches for personal identification documents at traffic stops when the driver failed to provide … personal identification upon request.” Id.

The Court summarized the facts of Lopez as follows: police “responded to an anonymous tip concerning erratic driving.” Police were “(u)nable to locate the vehicle,” so they “asked dispatch to run a computer search of the license plate.” Police “then drove by the address where the car was registered,” but didn’t see a car matching the description. As such, police left. However, when police received a second tip regarding the same car, they returned to the registered address and waited. When defendant Maria Elena Lopez pulled up and parked in front of her house, police approached Ms. Lopez and asked Ms. Lopez if she had a driver’s license. Ms. Lopez said no, so police searched the car. During this search, they found a small baggie of methamphetamine. Id. at *2.

Ms. Lopez “was charged with misdemeanor violations of possessing methamphetamine” and driving with a suspended license. Id. at *2. During her suppression motion, Ms. Lopez argued that police unlawfully detained her and searched her purse. The trial court granted the suppression motion, reasoning that the car search “was invalid because neither of the justifications for conducting a vehicle search incident to arrest under Gant” applied. Id.

Gant recognizes two justifications for searching a car incident to arrest:

  1. The suspect can gain access to weapons in the car, or
  2. “(E)vidence of the offense of arrest might be found inside the vehicle.”

Id., citing Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, 335 (2009).

The Court of Appeal reversed the suppression ruling, explaining that Gant was inapplicable because the search occurred when Ms. Lopez was detained, not arrested. Consequently, the “authority for the search was … not the search incident to arrest exception.” Instead, the proper authority was “the traffic-stop identification-search exception recognized in Arturo D.” Id. Under Arturo, “police were … permitted to search Lopez’s vehicle for other forms of identification in order to ensure that any citation … reflected Lopez’s true identity.” Id., citing In re Arturo D., 27 Cal. 4th 60, 86 (2002).

Ultimately, the California Supreme Court, citing Gant, rejected the Court of Appeal’s decision, holding that such a search is unreasonable when police conduct the search for the purposes of obtaining a driver’s identification. Stated another way, cops can’t search your car simply to find your ID.

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