12/30/2013Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rejects Turn Signal Search
Highest court in Pennsylvania overturns search and impound of an automobile over a turn signal and license violation.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Friday revised state policy on police searches of automobiles. The court held that police cannot tow and inventory search a vehicle unless there is a genuine public safety purposes to impound the car.
The court arrived that the decision in considering the case of Francis Patrick Lagenella Jr, who was driving his black Ford Mustang on Woodbine Street in Harrisburg at around 1:45am on December 31, 2008. Officer Terry Wealand claims he saw the Mustang make a turn without a signal, so he pulled the vehicle over. Lagenella produced his license and registration, and when Officer Wealand called it in, he noted the license was suspended.
Officer Wealand handed Lagenella a ticket for the license and for having no emissions sticker, and then Lagenella was told he was free to go -- though his car was going to be towed. The Mustang was safely parked on the one-way street, and Lagenella said that he knew someone with a tow truck who could take the car away. Officer Wealand insisted it had to be towed, which means the car -- including the trunk -- would have to be searched for inventory.
Since it was below freezing and Lagenella was standing outside the car, Officer Wealand offered to get the jacket in the backseat of the Mustang. As he checked the jacket for weapons, Officer Wealand found an eyeglass case which he opened with Lagenella's consent. Inside were marijuana seeds and baggies with white residue. Officer Wealand continued the search and found a Savage 20-gauge shotgun and a Sears and Roebuck .30-06 hunting rifle in the trunk.
At trial, Lagenella argues the search was illegal because his Mustang was perfectly safe on the street and did not pose any hazard requiring its removal. The trial judge agreed that the eyeglass search was illegal but the trunk search was fine. An appeal made it to the state Supreme Court, which found that both searches were unlawful.
"The purpose of an inventory search is not to uncover criminal evidence, but to safeguard items taken into police custody in order to benefit both the police and the defendant," Justice Debra McCloskey Todd wrote for the majority. "[We] hold that a vehicle which has simply been immobilized in place is not in the lawful custody of police for purposes of an inventory search.... As Corporal Wealand's towing of appellant's vehicle was unlawful, so was his inventory search of appellant's vehicle"
The court ordered suppression of the evidence in the trunk as well as the eyeglass case because both followed from the mistaken premise that the vehicle had to be towed. In a dissent, Justice J. Michael Eakin argued both searches were entirely appropriate.
"In parlance of Fifth Amendment cases, this car was no longer free to go," Justice J. Michael Eakin wrote. "While appellant claims it was not in custody of the police, this car was seized and in police possession... As such, the policy of the department applied, and I would find the search was lawful."
A copy of the decision is available in a 150k PDF file at the source link below.