State v. Buelna Valdez: Search Incident to Arrest is Invalid (Tip of the Hat To Arizona V. Gant)

WONDERFUL opinion.  The WA Supreme Court affirms Arizona v. Gant under 4th Amendment and Art.1, Section 7 of the WA Constitution.  In other words, THE WA SUPREMES HAVE EMBRACED ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT CRIMINAL LAW DECISIONS HANDED DOWN BY THE U.S. SUPREME COURT IN RECENT HISTORY. 

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/index.cfm?fa=opinions.showOpinion&filename=800910MAJ

Officer pulls over a vehicle because it had only one working headlight.  The officer ran a records search on the driver, Mr. Buelna-Valdez, and discovered there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest.  The officer handcuffed and secured the defendant in his patrol car.  Officer searched the vehicle.  He noticed loose dashboard panels.  He calls a K-9 unit.  The K-9 uncovered methamphetamine located under a moldy cup holder.  The passenger was then also arrested.

The WA  Supremes held that the automobile search incident to arrest was unlawful.  They reasoned that because the arrestee was handcuffed and secured in the backseat of a patrol car, he no longer had access to any portion of his vehicle.  The officer’s search of the vehicle was therefore unconstitutional under both the Fourth Amendment and the WA Constitution.  The Court also embraced the U.S. Supreme Court’s Arizona v. Gant in finding factual similarities between the cases:

“Under the Fourth Amendment, the arrestee was secured and not within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search, so neither officer safety nor preservation of evidence of the crime of arrest warranted the search.  See Gant, 129 S. Ct. at 1719.  Furthermore, the arrestee was arrested based upon an outstanding warrant; the State has not shown that it was reasonable to believe that evidence relevant to the underlying crime might be found in the vehicle.  See Gant, citing Thornton, 541 U.S. at 632 (Scalia, J., concurring).”

The Court also reasoned the search was conducted without a warrant, even though the circumstances did not prevent officers from obtaining one prior to the search:  “There was no showing that a delay to obtain a warrant would have endangered officers or resulted in evidence related to the crime of arrest being concealed or destroyed.  As such . . . the evidence collected from that search should be suppressed, and the resulting convictions reversed.”

My opinion?  Obviously, I’m happy.  The case is great law for defense attorneys.  Indeed, it goes even further than Gant. Although good, Gant was slightly problematic because it allowed police to search for evidence of the crime of arrest.   In this decision, however, the WA Supremes only allow a search if there is evidence of destruction.  Therefore, in WA, if the defendant is in the squad car, the police cannot search the defendant’s vehicle.  Beautiful.