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Name: People v. Zabala
Case #: H043328
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 6 DCA
Opinion Date: 01/11/2018

Police search behind console dashboard of car exceeded the scope of a permissible inventory search. Zabala was stopped by police for a traffic violation and found to be driving on a suspended license. His car was impounded and subjected to an inventory search. Methamphetamine was found in a hidden compartment behind a loose dashboard console. Zabala was charged with drug offenses and four prior drug conviction enhancements (Health & Saf. Code, § 11370.2, subd. (c)). Zabala’s motion to suppress the drug evidence was denied and he pleaded no contest to the charges. He appealed. Held: Affirmed. Automobiles that are impounded as part of a police agency’s community caretaking function are routinely searched and valuables found are secured and inventoried. Warrantless inventory searches are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment where the process is aimed at securing or protecting a car and its contents and not for the purpose of discovering incriminating evidence. (Colorado v. Bertine (1987) 479 U.S. 367.) The opening of closed containers during an inventory search must be conducted pursuant to standardized criteria. (Florida v. Wells (1990) 495 U.S. 1.) Here, removing the loose dashboard console was inconsistent with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department protocol, which allowed police to search places where people “commonly” put items of value, including closed containers. A concealed area behind the dashboard console is not an area commonly used for valuables. Further, there is no evidence officers observed anything, such as a weapon, in the enlarged gap of the loose dashboard. The search did not come within the inventory exception to the warrant requirement.

The dashboard console search was supported by probable case and was lawful under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. There are other established exceptions to the warrant requirement authorizing a vehicle search, including one based on probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity other than the offense of arrest (Arizona v. Gant (2009) 556 U.S. 332). A vehicle lawfully in police custody may be searched on the basis of probable cause to believe it contains contraband. Here, while conducting a valid inventory search, the officer found baggies of a suspicious white powder under the driver’s seat of the car, which the officer testified were packaged consistent with contraband. Based on the officer’s training, he knew that people use hidden compartments to conceal contraband in vehicles. He also noticed the dashboard console had been tampered with and thought the area behind the console was being used as a hidden compartment. The totality of the circumstances provided probable cause to search behind the dashboard console for contraband in connection with Zabala’s arrest.

In light of amendments to Health and Safety Code section 11370.2, subdivision (c), the three-year enhancement for appellant’s prior drug offense was vacated. As part of his plea, Zabala admitted a prior drug offense enhancement under section 11370.2, subdivision (c). The trial court imposed a three-year term for this prior. While Zabala’s appeal was pending, section 11370.2, subdivision (c) was amended by Senate Bill No. 180, which was approved by the Governor in October 2017. As amended, section 11370.2, subdivision (c) no longer applies in Zabala’s case. In response to his petition for rehearing presenting the issue, the Court of Appeal vacated the three-year term for this enhancement. [Editor’s Note: As amended, the enhancement is limited to priors where a minor was used or employed in the commission of the offense under Health and Safety Code section 11380. The change in the law was effective January 1, 2018].

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: