Police Inventory Searches – Can The Police Tow And Search My Car?

Police Often Need Search Warrants

As a general rule, police officers need a warrant to conduct a search of a person or a place. However, there are a number of exceptions to the warrant requirement, and one of them is the automobile exception. When the police want to search a car, they do not have to get a warrant. Instead, under both Pennsylvania and Federal case law, police officers need only probable cause to search a vehicle. Probable cause is the same standard which would be required for a magistrate or judge to issue a search warrant, but the police are not required to swear out an affidavit of probable cause and get a judicial officer to sign off on a search of a vehicle prior to conducting the search.

What Is Probable Cause?

Probable cause means that it is more likely than not that evidence of a crime will be found as a result of a search. For example, police officers will frequently claim that they smelled an odor of marijuana coming from a vehicle and therefore had probable cause to search the car. Under the government’s theory, the fact that the car smells like marijuana makes it more likely than not that marijuana will be found in the car if the police conduct a search, and therefore the police may search the car. If that search turns up a gun, drugs, or some other kind of contraband, then the prosecutor will argue that the search was justified because of the initial smell of marijuana. Of course, when the police claim they searched the car because of the smell of marijuana and then do not actually find any marijuana, it may be possible to challenge the search by filing a motion to suppress and arguing that the police testimony is not credible.

Other Exceptions to the Warrant Requirement

There are other ways that police officers will try to justify a car search. When police stop a car and have a vague hunch but are lacking in probable cause, they may attempt to use a traffic violation or motor vehicle code violation as the basis for the search by having the car towed so that they can do an inventory search. For example, if the police pull over a car with an expired registration, they may decide to tow the car instead of simply parking it on the side of the road so that they can conduct an inventory search of the vehicle. If they find some kind of contraband as a result of the inventory search, then they may bring criminal charges against the owner or operator of the car and argue that the inventory search exception to the warrant requirement justified the search and eliminated their need to obtain probable cause in a warrant. However, many of these decisions to tow and search cars are pretextual.

Limits on Police Inventory Searches of Cars

Fortunately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that the police may not tow a car and conduct an inventory search simply because the owner or operator has committed a motor vehicle code violation which prevents the car from legally driving on the streets. This means that the police may not tow a car and conduct an inventory search due solely to the fact that a car has an expired registration, lacks insurance, or has some other physical or regulatory defect. Instead, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that in order to tow a car, the police must be able to show that immobilizing the car and leaving it where it was parked would pose some kind of threat to public safety.  

Commonwealth v. Laganella

In Commonwealth v. Laganella, Harrisburg police pulled the defendant over for pulling into traffic without using a turn signal. Upon pulling the car over, the police officer learned that the vehicle was missing its emissions inspection sticker and that the defendant’s license had been suspended. Instead of simply issuing a ticket, the officer informed the defendant that the officer would have to tow the car. The defendant stated that there was no need for the car to be towed and that he could have a friend, who was a tow truck driver, pick the car up. Nonetheless, pursuant to department policy, the officer called a tow truck and searched the car, eventually finding drugs and a shotgun. The defendant, who had a prior felony conviction, was then charged with drug and gun charges, including VUFA Sec. 6105 (felon in possession of a firearm). After the trial court refused to suppress the gun, the defendant was convicted and sentenced to three to ten years in prison.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ultimately reversed the trial court’s decision. The Court recognized that Pennsylvania law gives a police officer two options when the officer stops a vehicle operated by a driver whose license has been suspended: the officer may either immobilize the vehicle or tow the vehicle. If the officer is permitted to tow the vehicle, then the police may conduct an inventory search not for the purpose of finding contraband, but for securing the operator’s belongings for the benefit of both the operator and the police. However, Pennsylvania law provides that the officer may only tow the car when the vehicle poses public safety concerns warranting its towing and storage at an impound lot. Thus, if the vehicle can be safely parked or privately towed, then the vehicle will not pose public safety concerns which would warrant its towing. Further, when the police do tow a vehicle and conduct an inventory search, they must do so pursuant to a reasonable, standard policy of securing and inventorying the contents of a vehicle. The requirement that police have a standardized policy seeks to prevent police from using their ability to conduct an inventory search as a pretext.

In an earlier decision, the Pennsylvania Superior Court had held that the police may conduct an inventory search regardless of whether they choose to merely immobilize the vehicle or actually tow it. However, in Laganella, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected this rule and held that police may only conduct an inventory search when they tow the vehicle. Because police may only tow the vehicle when there is a public safety concern, this creates a real limit on the ability of police to pretextually call a tow truck and conduct an inventory search. Thus, when the vehicle cannot be operated solely because the driver does not have a license or because the vehicle is missing its registration or insurance, the police may not tow the vehicle if the vehicle can be safely parked in the area where it was pulled over.  

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If you are facing criminal charges in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, we can help. We understand what you're going through, and we will use our skill and experience to get you through this. The Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers of Goldstein Mehta LLC will fight for your rights at trial or on appeal. Our attorneys have successfully defended thousands of cases in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties, and we can help with all types of state and federal charges in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. If you believe the police may have illegally searched you or your car and found some kind of contraband, we may be able to file a motion to suppress. Call 267-225-2545 for a free criminal defense strategy session with one of our award-winning criminal defense lawyers.