Stephen Wolfe Feb. 18, 2016

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article 1, Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution provide important protections against unreasonable searches.

The general rule is that warrantless searches are unreasonable. Though there are certain exceptions to this rule, those exceptions are limited. Law enforcement officers therefore generally need a warrant to justify a search.

What about the warrantless search of a parked car after the arrest of a passenger? In this post, we will discuss how the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in a recent case posing that issue.

Executing an arrest warrant

The case is called State v. Leak and involved a domestic assault incident. The sheriff's office in Richland County issued an arrest warrant for a man charged with domestic violence. An officer for the Mansfield Police Department was called to assist and located the man sitting in a parked car.

The officer did not only arrest the man. He also impounded the car and conducted a search of its contents. During that search, the officer found a gun under man's seat. This led to further charges against the man for firearms violations.

The man was convicted and put on probation (community control) for two and a half years. On appeal, he argued that the search of the car without a warrant was unreasonable and violated his constitutional rights.

Court's ruling

In a 5-4 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court held that the search of the car without a warrant was indeed unreasonable.

The court considered two exceptions to the warrant requirement that the state contended justified the search. One was the exception for a search made in connection with a lawful arrest. The other exception was an inventory search of a vehicle impounded for public safety reasons.

The majority of the court said neither of these exceptions applied.

The exception for a search incident to arrest did not apply for two reasons. The man who was being sought on a domestic violence charge was already safely under arrest when the officer searched the car. In addition, the court found it was not reasonable to believe that the car in which the man had been a passenger contained evidence of the domestic violence charge that was the basis for the arrest.

The court also found that the circumstances of the case did not justify impoundment of the vehicle. The car was legally parked and the person arrested was a passenger, not the owner. The police officer's unsubstantiated belief that the passenger was actually the owner of the car did not justify the impoundment.

When you face a search

State v. Leak is an important reminder that constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures are alive and well. But it is important to have a skilled attorney your side to assert your rights most effectively. This is true whether the issue at hand is domestic violence or any other potential charge.