Police must meet 'tow threshold' before inventory search

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Lawfully immobilizing a vehicle after learning a driver is unlicensed does not provide reason to perform an inventory search of the car, a divided state Supreme Court has ruled.

The court further determined that police need a reason to lawfully tow the vehicle before they can conduct the search.

The Dec. 27 holding reverses the state Superior Court's decision to allow evidence uncovered during an inventory search after a vehicle was immobilized. 

Justice Debra Todd, writing the majority decision in Commonwealth v. Lagenella, said there was no reason to tow the vehicle, and therefore the inventory search — which is an exception to the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure — was unlawful.

"Because there was no basis for [the officer] to tow appellant's vehicle in the first instance, the inventory search of appellant's vehicle was improper, and the fact that [the officer] performed the vehicle inventory search in accordance with a standard inventory policy is immaterial," Justice Todd wrote.

She was joined by Justices Max Baer and Seamus P. McCaffery, as well as Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille. Justice Thomas G. Saylor filed a concurring opinion, and Justice J. Michael Eakin filed a dissenting opinion.

On Dec. 31, 2008, Cpl. Terry Wealand, a police officer with the Harrisburg Bureau of Police, saw Francis Patrick Lagenella Jr. pull into traffic without signaling. Cpl. Wealand pulled Mr. Lagenella's car over, and subsequently noticed that his vehicle did not have the required emissions sticker and that Mr. Lagenella's license was suspended. The police officer issued two citations, asked Mr. Lagenella to exit the car and then told Mr. Lagenella that his car would be towed because his license was suspended.

Although Mr. Lagenella said his friend had a towing business and could tow his vehicle, Cpl. Wealand told him the department's policy on towing vehicles, and said he was required to conduct an inventory of the vehicle's contents.

Cpl. Wealand later asked Mr. Lagenella if he would like the jacket in the backseat of the vehicle. Before the police officer turned over the jacket, he felt it for weapons and subsequently found an eyeglasses case, which was found to contain marijuana seeds, cocaine and a box-cutter. Mr. Lagenella was arrested.

Cpl. Wealand then searched the car and found a 20-gauge shotgun and a hunting rifle. Based on the earlier check of Mr. Lagenella's license, Cpl. Wealand knew that Mr. Lagenella was a convicted felon and could not own a weapon. Mr. Lagenella also admitted that the hunting rifle was stolen.

Before having a bench trial, Mr. Lagenella filed a motion to suppress the evidence of drugs and guns and argued that he did not consent to opening the glasses case, and that Cpl. Wealand did not have the authority or cause to tow his vehicle, because the vehicle did not present an issue of public safety.

First Assistant District Attorney of Dauphin County Francis T. Chardo, who represented the state, said the ruling will be helpful going forward.

"We understand the court's reasoning. It was an area of the law with not a lot of guidance, and now we can adjust our policies accordingly," he said. "We are going to have a model countywide inventory impoundment policy."

Lagenella's attorney, Andrea Haynes of the Dauphin County Public Defender's Office, said she was pleased with the decision.

"It's good to see the Supreme Court upholding the Fourth Amendment," she said. "Our office is very happy with the decision."

Max Mitchell: mmitchell@alm.com or 215-557-2354. Read more stories like this at www.thelegalintelligencer.com.

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