Search of legally parked car without warrant not reasonable just because person in it arrested, rules Ohio Supreme Court

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled yesterday that police cannot search a lawfully parked vehicle without a warrant solely because a person they arrested had recently been inside it. The case came about when Quayshaun Leak was arrested based on a warrant from a domestic violence incident. Police located Leak in a legally parked car near his apartment, ordered him out of the car and arrested him. There were two other people in the car. After arresting Leak, police ordered the other two people out of the car, called to request a tow and performed an inventory search, finding a handgun under the passenger seat. Leak admitted the gun was his.

At trial, Leak filed a motion to suppress evidence relating to the gun, arguing that the warrantless search of the car violated his 4th Amendment rights. The officer testified that he had the car towed because he believed it belonged to Leak, and that it is standard procedure to perform an inventory search before impounding a car. The officer also stated that he was looking for evidence in the car because he didn't know where the domestic violence had occurred. The trial court denied the motion to suppress and the Fifth District affirmed.

On appeal, the Ohio Supreme Court held that the search was not reasonable under the 4th Amendment and that the evidence should have been suppressed. The court emphasized that warrantless searches are deemed unreasonable unless the situation falls into an exception to the warrant requirement. One exception is for searches incident to a lawful arrest, where the person being arrested has not been secured and could reach into the vehicle, or if it's reasonable to believe that the vehicle has evidence of the crime that the person was arrested for.

The court held that the search in Leak's case didn't fall into this exception, as he was secured in the patrol car, and that it wasn't reasonable for the officer to think that there was evidence of the domestic violence incident in the car. The court emphasized that the arresting officer in the case was not the investigating officer and didn't have any specifics about the domestic violence situation other than knowing a warrant existed.

The other exception that would allow a warrantless search is when the police are exercising a community care-taking function, such as when they are legally impounding a vehicle. At this time they can conduct inventory searches to secure property. The court found that in this case the car was not lawfully impounded, so the search did not fall into this exception either. The court evaluated the city code and found no reason to lawfully impound the car. The opinion stressed that the car had a driver with a valid license and no warrants who could have driven it away, and that it was not connected to the domestic violence offense.

Because the officer's search of the car in Leak's case did not fall under either of these exceptions, the court found that it was unreasonable under the 4th Amendment. Justice O'Neill wrote the opinion for the majority, and was joined by Justices Lanzinger an Kennedy. Justice French concurred in the judgment only. Justices Pfeifer and O'Donnell dissented.

For more information about the case, see this article from Court News Ohio and the online docket.

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