Politics & Government

Police wrong to search car, justices decide

Sheriff’s deputies were wrong to search a wanted man’s car without a warrant, even though he was standing next to the car in his driveway and ran inside the house when authorities arrived, the state Supreme Court said Thursday.

The unanimous ruling follows the reasoning of a U.S. Supreme Court decision issued earlier this year, which tightened the rules on police vehicle searches without court permission.

Like their federal counterparts, Washington’s justices said the leeway given to police to search a vehicle without a warrant has been interpreted too broadly over the years, and must be reined in to protect privacy rights.

Police generally are required to get a court warrant before searching someone’s property, but the law grants some exceptions. The exception at issue in Thursday’s case was an automobile search “incident to arrest” — meaning the vehicle was somehow connected to a lawful arrest.

The “incident to arrest” exception was intended to let officers search a car for weapons that a suspect might use against them, or for evidence related to the arrest that might be hidden or destroyed if the search isn’t performed.

But the case decided Thursday took that exception too far, the court said, because the suspect’s car was searched simply because he was standing next to it when arrested.

“A search incident to arrest cannot arise from the simple fortuity that a suspect is arrested near his car,” Justice Debra Stephens wrote for the court.

The case stemmed from the 2005 arrest of Randall J. Patton on a felony warrant for failing to appear in court.

Skamania County Sheriff’s Deputy Tim Converse was staking out Patton’s trailer to arrest him on the warrant when he saw someone fitting Patton’s description “rummaging around” in Patton’s parked car. Converse flipped on his cruiser’s lights and pulled into the driveway, announcing that Patton was under arrest.

Patton stood up from the car and fled into his trailer. After backup deputies arrived, he was removed from the trailer, handcuffed and put in the back of Converse’s car. The deputies then searched Patton’s car, and found two baggies of methamphetamine and some cash under the driver’s seat. Patton was charged with drug possession and resisting arrest.

But the search was illegal, the court said Thursday, because Patton was nowhere near the car when the search was performed, and officer safety or evidence of the original crime were not at stake.

“We hold that an automobile search incident to arrest is not justified unless the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search, and the search is necessary for officer safety or to secure evidence of the crime of arrest that could be concealed or destroyed,” the court wrote.

That tracks closely with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year in Arizona v. Gant, which held that police need a warrant to search the vehicle of someone they’ve arrested if that person is locked in a police vehicle and poses no safety threat to officers.

State Justice Jim Johnson, in a concurring opinion, said the earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision essentially rendered the state court’s ruling pointless, because federal privacy law applies in Washington state.

Stephens, however, replied that the state court has a duty to analyze how the law applies under Washington’s Constitution, which in some cases provides greater privacy protections than federal law.