When the police stop your car and arrest you, can they search your car too? Many times when someone is arrested they’re in their car driving down the road just before the contact with law enforcement. The law states that when police impound a car they can conduct an inventory search of the car according to their standardized policy. The police must have a standard practice that they use in every case and follow it in order for the inventory search to be valid and result in evidence that can be used against you. (This is how the United States Supreme Court ruled in Bertine, 470 US 367). However, recently in the case of People v. Zabala, decided November 13, 2017, the Court of Appeal decided that a search that involved removing the dashboard console where methamphetamine was located violated the department’s policy on inventory searches since the policy only allowed an inventory search of places people normally put items of value.
The defendant wins and the evidence of methamphetamine is suppressed, right? Wrong!! The police can search a vehicle when there is suspicion based on seeing something in plain sight (United States Supreme Court in Gant 556 US 332). In Zabala, there was a suspicious white powder found lawfully during the inventory search and the dashboard was loose making it look like it had been altered. So based on the powder and the loose dashboard (both found legally) there was probable cause to believe that illegal substances would be found behind the console. Therefore, even though it was an illegal inventory search and that’s what the police relied on to search at the time, the court decided that there was another reason to allow the search and the defendant loses! The takeaway is that when it’s an illegal search the court can find a way to make it legal.
Your lawyer needs to know your case, the law and how to put the argument forward so not only the District Attorney sees it as correct, but the judge too.