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Ending California’s Minority of One: No more warrantless vehicle searches for personal identification (People v. Lopez)

Until November 2019, California law enforcement enjoyed the authority to conduct a warrantless vehicle search for personal identification documents at traffic stops when a driver failed to provide a license or other personal identification upon request.  In re Arturo D. (2002) 27 Cal.4th 60.  Arturo D. recognized the state’s interest in identifying drivers so an officer could properly cite them, perhaps preventing the greater intrusion of an arrest due to an officer’s inability to credibly identify the driver.  In November, the California Supreme Court overruled itself in People v. Lopez (2019) 2019 WL 6267367 holding that such warrantless searches violate the 4th Amendment.

In Lopez, the officer received an anonymous tip concerning erratic driving, with a description of the car, license plate and area the car was last seen.  It was July 4th.  Not finding the car, the officer looked up the license plate and went to the residence to locate the car.  No car found.  Another tip came in later that day describing the same car, identifying the driver as “Marlena,” and indicating that the driver had been drinking all day.  The officer went to the residence again and waited.  Minutes later, Defendant Maria Elena Lopez drove up, parked in front of the house, and upon seeing the officer, attempted to walk away from him.  The officer approached and asked if Lopez had a driver’s license.  Lopez said she did not.  The officer placed Lopez in a control hold, and because she tried to pull away, ultimately handcuffed her.  He asked her if she had any identification in her vehicle to which she replied, “there might be.”  With that, Lopez’s purse was located in the car, searched, and a baggie containing methamphetamine was found. She was charged with possession of methamphetamine and driving on a suspended license. Lopez moved to suppress the evidence.

The trial court suppressed the evidence.  The court found that the initial encounter was consensual, and upon Lopez’s admission that she did not have a license, the officer had probable cause to detain and arrest Lopez for driving without a valid license.  The trial court decided then to apply Arizona v. Gant (2009), the United States Supreme Court case holding that warrantless vehicle searches incident to a defendant’s arrest is justified only if it is reasonable to believe the suspect can gain access to weapons inside the vehicle or that evidence of the offense of arrest might be found inside the vehicle.  Concluding then, in Lopez, that the officer did not have any reason to suspect weapons were inside the vehicle and there wouldn’t be evidence of the arrestable offense of driving without a license.  The trial court seemed to ignore the California Supreme Court case on point to Lopez’s facts. The California Appellate Court did not.  The Appellate Court held that Gant was not applicable because this was not a search incident to arrest, but rather the traffic-stop identification-search exception allowed by Arturo D.

The California Supreme Court agreed that under these facts, Arturo D. would allow such a search.  BUT, they then overruled their own caselaw and held that Arturo D. was no longer good law.  In no longer allowing for a traffic-stop identification-search exception to the 4th Amendment, the Court decided officers have other alternatives than a warrantless search pursuant to Arturo D.  First, the Court noted that an officer can ask for identifying information and verify it over radio communications.  If the officer is satisfied with that information, then the officer can issue a citation.  The officer can ask for consent to search the vehicle for identification; however, we know this will often open up claims of coercion later.  And finally, circumstances may arise that allow for a search under one of the legal exceptions to the 4th Amendment.  For example, if the person lies about their identity, they can be subject to arrest and it may be deemed reasonable to search the car incident to arrest to find identification that would prove the suspect lied as permitted by Gant.  This is different from the authority under Arturo D. because Arturo D. did not require the suspect to lie, just that the suspect was unable to supply identification.

Although the California Supreme Court considered California the sole minority for the warrantless traffic-stop search, that is not entirely true.  The California Supreme Court acknowledged that New Jersey allows an exception for warrantless vehicle searches to locate registration and proof of insurance documentation.  However, more states have disapproved.  Now, you are likely thinking this scenario is completely unfair to the officer in Lopez relying on what was law at the time to conduct his search. The case was sent back to the lower courts and hopefully the evidence will not be suppressed because the officer acted in good faith.

What does this mean for you? You may have noticed that a 17-year-old law was undone by a possession of methamphetamine case!  Perhaps not the case we all needed to appeal since it is unclear if that is even still a crime, but likely the prosecution did not expect the California Supreme Court to undo their own caselaw.  For now, consider if your traffic stop has resulted in probable cause for arrest and if it is reasonable and legal to search incident to arrest.




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