Criminal cases often hinge on whether evidence is admissible. Evidence obtained through an unlawful search is generally inadmissible. Vehicles can be especially vulnerable to questionable searches.
A recent case considered whether drug evidence seized in an inventory search of an impounded motorcycle should have been suppressed. A trooper stopped the defendant for speeding. During the stop, the trooper began to suspect the motorcycle the defendant was riding may have been stolen, although the court’s opinion does not detail what caused this suspicion. The trooper was unable to determine if the motorcycle was stolen. He did not arrest the defendant but also did not let him drive the motorcycle because he did not have a motorcycle endorsement. The officer impounded the motorcycle because of a Washington State Patrol policy that required the impound of motorcycles operated by a driver without an endorsement.
The trooper found two zippered cases during the inventory search. He opened them to see if they contained ownership documentation. He instead found drugs and drug-related evidence. The state charged the defendant with drug offenses. He moved to suppress the evidence from the motorcycle search, but the court denied his motion. A jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to 90 months incarceration. The defendant appealed.
The defendant argued the evidence should have been suppressed. The court found that the decision to impound the motorcycle based on a mandatory policy was a violation of state law. RCW 46.55.113(2)(g) provides that an officer may take custody of a vehicle at his or her discretion if the driver did not have a valid or specially endorsed license when required. The Washington Supreme Court also previously found that a State Patrol regulation was invalid for requiring troopers to impound vehicles regardless of the circumstances.
The appeals court also found that the inventory search was unlawful because the trooper opened the cases without showing exigent circumstances or consent. Additionally, it was not conducted in accordance with standardized criteria and procedures.
The appeals court acknowledged the difficult position of the trooper. He did not have probable cause that the vehicle was stolen but was not able to ascertain its ownership. The defendant did not have a motorcycle endorsement on his license, but leaving the motorcycle on the side of the highway also posed risks. The appeals court found, however, that there were less intrusive steps to investigate ownership and secure the motorcycle. Those steps should have been taken. The appeals court therefore found that the evidence must be suppressed.
The appeals court reversed the conviction and ordered that the charges against the defendant be dismissed.
The appeals court suggested two issues here. First, the policy should have given the trooper discretion as to whether the vehicle was impounded. Second, by finding that there were less intrusive steps that should have been taken, the appeals court suggested that the trooper should have exercised that discretion here.
Defendants in Washington need an aggressive and experienced drug crime attorney to protect their rights. Contact Blair & Kim, PLLC by phone at (206) 622-6562 or through our website to discuss your case.
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