Police must meet car 'tow' threshold before 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 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 Dec. 27 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.

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.

Cpl. Wealand 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.

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

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