During a traffic stop, police may conduct a limited warrantless search in a vehicle for the driver’s identification and license when the driver fails to produce required information. Police received several reports of a car driving erratically and that the driver of the car had been drinking. They could not initially locate the vehicle but ran the reported plates and drove to the residence associated with the car. Officers observed Lopez park her car and exit the vehicle. When an officer approached Lopez, who looked nervous, and asked whether she had a driver’s license, she responded “no.” When asked about identification, Lopez said it might be in the car. The officer handcuffed her, looked in her car, retrieved her purse and looked in it for her identification. The officer found methamphetamine. Lopez’s motion to suppress the drug evidence was granted and the prosecution appealed. Held: Reversed. A warrantless search is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment unless conducted pursuant to an exception to the warrant requirement. In Arturo D. (2002) 27 Cal.4th 60, the Supreme Court found such an exception in the context of a traffic stop during which the driver failed to produce valid registration, a driver’s license, or identification upon valid demand. The court held that in such cases, a limited warrantless search may be conducted of areas within the vehicle where such documentation might reasonably be found. This holding was not overruled by Arizona v. Gant (2009) 556 U.S. 332, which held that the warrantless search of a vehicle incident to the arrest of its occupant, allowed by New York v. Belton (1981) 453 U.S. 454, does not apply after the arrestee has been secured and cannot access the interior of the car. In the present case, officers did not conduct a full Belton-type search of the car and containers incident to arrest, but only a limited search for identification in a defined location. Gant does not address such a search or overrule the holding in Arturo D.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/C078537.PDF