Did the police enter onto property to search your vehicle without a warrant? You might be able to get your case dismissed! By Morgan Wallace*

*Case Law Ltd. Extern and South Texas College of Law student

The California Court of Appeals declared the seizure of a defendant’s vehicle on the private property of another, a Fourth Amendment violation. (People v. Rorabaugh (Jan. 25, 2022, No. C090482) ___Cal.App.5th___ [2022 Cal. App. LEXIS 60].) In People v. Rorabaugh, the police acquired search warrants for the defendants’ homes and any vehicles at the properties. Id. at 21. When executing the warrant, the defendant informed the police that his vehicle was on a nearby ranch. Id. at 7. The police seized the car from the ranch without obtaining a separate warrant for the ranch or vehicle. Ibid. The murder victim’s DNA evidence was found in the trunk of the car. Ibid. This evidence was significant in the prosecution’s case against the defendants—the prosecutor used the evidence as a reason to convict in his closing argument. Id. at 1. Prior to trial, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing a Fourth Amendment violation because the car was obtained without a warrant from private property. Id. at 9. The trial court denied the motion based on the “automobile exception” created by the U.S. Supreme Court, which states that officers “can search a car independent of the detention or arrest of the defendant when there is probable cause to believe the vehicle contains evidence of a crime” and such probable cause also applies to cars parked on the private property of another. Id. at 12. The defendant appealed, arguing that the “automobile exception” is limited to the vehicle and does not allow police to enter the private property the automobile is on without a warrant because the defendant had an expectation to privacy. Ibid. The People argued the “automobile exception” applied because the defendant’s vehicle was 200 yards away from the “curtilage” of the landowner’s home. Id. at 14. Additionally, argued that the car was considered evidence of the commission of murder, rendering the seizure lawful without a warrant under the “instrumentality of the crime exception.” Ibid. The People also argued that the defendant had no right to privacy on this property because he did not reside there. Ibid.

The appellate court applied Coolidge which ruled that “the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement did not apply to seizure and subsequent search at a police station of a car that was parked in plain view in the defendant’s driveway, when defendant already had been arrested inside his home. This was so despite probable cause to search the car.” Rorabaugh, supra, No. C090482, LEXIS, 22. The rationale is that probable cause, absent exigent circumstances, does not provide police with justification to search and seize the car without a warrant. Id. at 23. The Court of Appeals found that under Coolidge:

“if (a) police do not have an otherwise lawful right of access to an unattended car on private property, and (b) it is not impracticable to obtain a warrant, then (c) warrantless seizure of the car accomplished by trespassing on private property (and subsequently searching the car at another location) is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and does not fall within the automobile exception, even if there is probable cause to search it.” Id. at 21.

Because of this Fourth Amendment violation, the trial court should have granted the motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the illegal search and seizure of the car. Ibid. Thus, the Court of Appeals ruled the evidence was inadmissible. Id. at 31. As for the decision to remand, the People argued the conviction should stand because the admission of the evidence by the trial court was a harmless error—the defendant would have been convicted without it. Id. at 30. The Court of Appeals disagrees, stating that the DNA evidence was relied upon in the prosecutor’s closing argument. Id. at 29. The conviction was reversed and remanded with an instruction that the trial court suppress the evidence acquired from the car. Id. at 34.

The evidence obtained in the illegal search and seizure of the defendant’s car was the biggest piece of physical evidence the prosecution had. The Court of Appeals’ decision put the Constitutional rights of the defendant above achieving a murder conviction to ensure he was granted a fair trial. In doing so, the court set a precedent that warrant-less probable cause is not sufficient to seize a defendant’s vehicle on the property of another. This is an important expansion of an individual’s right to privacy beyond their own property.