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Name: People v. Wallace
Case #: A149049
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 1 DCA
Division: 2
Opinion Date: 09/07/2017
Summary

Search of defendant’s vehicle was not a valid inventory search because there was not substantial evidence that that police conducted the search pursuant to standardized department procedures. An officer detained Wallace for having “false tabs.” A second officer, Ambrose, heard Wallace’s name broadcast and knew he was wanted for a domestic violence incident that occurred a few nights before. Officer Ambrose went to the traffic stop, placed Wallace in handcuffs, and seated him in the back of the patrol car. He then went back to search Wallace’s car, which he justified on the grounds of an inventory search and search incident to arrest. Officer Ambrose found a long, wooden baton between the driver’s seat and center console. Wallace was charged with possession of a baton and moved to suppress the evidence. At the preliminary hearing, Officer Ambrose testified that it was standard policy to fill out a CHP 180 form if a car was towed, but he had nothing to do with the initial traffic stop or filling out the form. He was unsure whether the car was actually towed. The prosecution did not produce the form at the hearing. The trial court denied the motion, finding that this was not a search incident to an arrest but was instead a search based upon an inventory of a towed car. Wallace pleaded no contest to possession of a baton, and appealed the denial of his suppression motion. Held: Reversed. While courts have recognized inventory searches as an exception to the warrant requirement, a valid inventory search must adhere to a preexisting policy that is designed to produce an inventory. The court here concluded that there was no substantial evidence that the search of Wallace’s car was undertaken for the purpose of preparing an inventory. There was no evidence that officers decided to tow his car before searching it, that the car was actually towed, or that an officer completed a CHP 180 form. (See People v. Williams (1999) 20 Cal.4th 119.)

There was not substantial evidence that police inevitably would have discovered the baton during the course of an inventory search after defendant’s vehicle was towed. The prosecution argued that the trial court properly denied the motion to suppress because police would inevitably discovered the baton in the course of an inventory search conducted after Wallace’s vehicle was towed. The court rejected this argument. Evidence that has been illegally obtained may be admitted if the prosecution establishes that the information inevitably would have been discovered by lawful means. The inevitable discovery doctrine does not involve speculative elements but instead focuses on demonstrated historical facts capable of ready verification or impeachment. (People v. Superior Court (Corbett) (2017) 8 Cal.App.4th 670, 682.) Here, the People’s argument required layers of inference that were far too speculative to support a conviction. The court noted that the record was silent as to whether any officer even considered towing the vehicle, and there was no indication that the vehicle was actually towed. While it is possible that the car was towed, “a mere possibility does not rise to the level of substantial evidence.” Accordingly, the court could not affirm the trial court’s order based on the prosecution’s inevitable discovery theory. The court remanded the case with directions to the trial court to vacate the order denying the suppression motion, enter a new order granting the motion, and permit Wallace to withdraw his no contest plea.

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/A149049.PDF