12/20/2006California Appeals Decision Limits Car Confiscation
Full text of a California Appeals Court decision limiting car seizures outside the home of a motorist.
A three-judge California Appeals Court panel issued a unanimous ruling last week limiting the ability of police to seize automobiles from outside a motorist's own home without a compelling safety reason to do so.
The case began when Santa Monica Police Officer Derek Morton stopped Ricky Conley Williams for not wearing a seatbelt, just outside of Williams' home. Because Williams was driving a rental car at the time, he did not have the vehicle's registration or insurance information. Officer Morton decided to arrest Williams on an outstanding warrant over a traffic ticket that the same officer had issued months before. In the course of impounding the car, Morton searched the vehicle and found a gun in a bag in the back seat.
Morton said he impounded the car because that was the action he always took in such cases, but Santa Monica police have no policy regarding the seizure of vehicles under these circumstances.
"That a validly licensed driver in legal possession of the car parked legally in front of his own home was irrelevant to Morton's decision to impound," the court explained.
A trial court found Williams guilty, but the appellate court disagreed stating that the gun was found only after an unconstitutional search that preceded the illegal vehicle seizure.
"No community caretaking function was served by impounding appellant's car," the court wrote. "The car was legally parked at the curb in front of appellant's home. The possibility that the vehicle would be stolen, broken into, or vandalized was no greater than if Morton had not stopped and arrested appellant as he returned home."