by Matt Rosenberg May 31st, 2013
The Washington State Supreme Court in a ruling issued May 30 upheld the right of police under certain conditions to search a vehicle for inventory prior to a tow-away and for resulting evidence to be used in a drug possession prosecution. The case in question involved a Jefferson County Superior Court conviction for possession of methamphetamine of a driver who lacked a license and was driving the car of his jailed girlfriend.
In November of 2009 Larry Dean Tyler was pulled over for speeding, about a quarter mile west of the Hood Canal Bridge and neither he nor his passenger could produce a valid drivers license. He told the responding sheriff’s deputy that he had none and the car’s owner was his girlfriend who was jailed in another county. The passenger also lacked a license. Because neither Tyler nor his passenger could legally drive the car away police let them make a call to find another driver to do so but the person reached could not help.
A tow truck had to be called and following what they believed to be normal and allowable steps, police took inventory of the vehicle before the tow. They saw loose stereo equipment in the back seat and looking closer to record it they noted a clear plastic baggie beneath the driver seat. The contents field-tested positive for methamphetamine.
Despite asserting the search was based on an unconstitutional pretext, and then also arguing it was invalid because he had denied permission for it, Tyler was in April 2010 in Jefferson County Superior Court convicted for possession of meth and driving with a suspended license, in a ruling signed by Judges Craddock D. Verser and S. Brooke Taylor. They wrote that the police offer to let the vehicle’s occupants call for another driver before the impounding and the related pre-tow inventory search negated Tyler’s claims of an illegal search.
Tyler took the case to State Appeals Court Division II. But in January 2012 Judges Jill M. Johanson and Marywave Van Deren upheld the lower court ruling, with Judge David H. Armstrong dissenting. A footnote in the ruling states a small blue tin was also found in the vehicle and later tests showed the contents to be heroin – but this was not allowed as evidence.
Last October Tyler’s appeal was heard by the Washington State Supreme Court. Video is below, courtesy of the non-profit news channel TVW.
Arguing for Jefferson County, special deputy prosecuting attorney Pamela Loginsky of Port Orchard said police properly moved from an investigative to a community care-taking function by acting to clear the car from a busy stretch of roadway but then were legally entitled to reopen investigative proceedings when while inventorying the vehicle before impoundment they found the clear baggie of white power which field-tested as meth.
Echoing arguments raised in the earlier lower court case and appeal, Tyler’s defense attorney James Reese III stressed there was no attempt to contact the car’s owner, or her spouse or a friend and that impoundment – and the related inventory search – thus wasn’t kosher under state law; nor was analysis of the baggie’s contents proper without consent.
The ruling issued yesterday noted, “the evidence was insufficient to show the search was a ruse to enable the officer to make an investigatory search,” and that under the state constitution “officers are not required to obtain consent of a vehicle’s owner, the owner’s spouse, or the driver before conducting an inventory search.”
Loginsky at the time the case was argued before the State Supreme Court was running for a seat on the State Appeals Court, Division II but lost to Thomas Bjorgen.