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Ohio Supreme Court Decides Whether Search of Vehicle was Constitutional

In the recent case of State v. Toran, the Ohio Supreme Court addressed the legality of a deputy’s vehicle search.  For a law enforcement officer to search a vehicle, a search warrant is generally required, unless there is an applicable exception to the warrant requirement.  The issue in this case was whether the prosecution proved the applicability of the ‘inventory search’ exception.

What Happened on the Road
A sheriff’s deputy in Ohio observed a truck with a temporary license plate which was improperly displayed.  Based on the license plate violation, the deputy made a traffic stop.  The deputy determined the vehicle was driven by Jamie Toran, and the deputy learned Toran was driving with a suspended driver’s license.

The deputy decided the truck would be towed and impounded.  The deputy then began conducting an inventory of the truck’s contents.  While doing so, the deputy found a loaded handgun in a door panel.  The deputy seized the gun as evidence and arrested Toran.  Toran was charged with Carrying a Concealed Weapon, Improperly Handling Firearms in a Motor Vehicle, and Having a Weapon Under Disability.

What Happened in the Lower Courts
Toran filed a motion to suppress evidence regarding the handgun.  During a hearing on that motion, the deputy testified the departmental policy is to do an inventory search of any vehicle which is going to be impounded.  The deputy further testified he has been doing this job for nearly 20 years, and he is systematic about how he does vehicle impoundments.  The deputy’s body cam video was admitted as evidence, but the written departmental policy was not.  The judge denied the motion to suppress, and Toran pled No Contest to the charges.

Torran appealed the judge’s ruling to the First District Court of Appeals.  The Court of Appeals overruled the judge’s decision on the motion to suppress.  The Court of Appeals found the inventory search violated Toran’s rights because the state’s evidence was “insufficient to demonstrate that the inventory search of the vehicle was made in accordance with standardized procedures of the sheriff’s department”.

What Happened in the Supreme Court
The prosecution requested the Ohio Supreme Court to decide the issue.  The Ohio Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and decide the prosecution’s proposition of law:

Where the stop and impoundment of a vehicle is lawful, the subsequent inventory search of the vehicle in accordance with Sheriff Department procedures is not rendered constitutionally unreasonable by the State’s failure to introduce actual written policy into evidence or the deputy’s failure to testify as to specific details of the policy at the suppression hearing.

In its analysis, the Court stated, “Based on the federal caselaw discussed above, we have determined that warrantless inventory searches are lawful if they are conducted ‘in good faith and in accordance with reasonable standardized procedure(s) or established routine’”.  The court opined it is not necessary for the prosecution to submit a written inventory search policy:  the officer’s testimony can be sufficient to prove the standardized procedures or established routine.

In this case, the deputy testified the departmental policy is to do an inventory search of any vehicle which is going to be impounded.  The deputy testified Toran’s vehicle was going to be impounded, so he conducted an inventory search.  The Supreme Court found this testimony established the existence of a standardized policy and proved the deputy acted in accordance with the policy.  Accordingly, the Supreme Court found the search was not a Constitutional violation and overruled the decision of the Court of Appeals.

What Happened to ‘Standardized Procedures’?
According to the Court’s synthesis of case law, an inventory search must be conducted, “in accordance with reasonable standardized procedure(s) or established routine”.  The deputy did not articulate any standardized procedures.  Do they make a list of the items in the vehicle?  Does the list include every single item in the vehicle, only certain categories of items, or only items with a value above a certain threshold?  Are all items left in the vehicle, or are some removed for safekeeping?  Those are questions answered by standardized procedures, and they were not answered in this case.

I conclude the prosecution did not prove the search was conducted in accordance with the department’s standardized procedures.  The Ohio Supreme Court, however, concludes the opposite.  As a result, it will now be more difficult to challenge inventory searches in Ohio OVI cases.

About the Author:  Shawn Dominy is a leading OVI lawyer in Ohio and the founder of the Dominy Law Firm in Columbus, Ohio.  He can be reached through his law firm’s website:  Dominy Law Firm.

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Shawn Dominy

Shawn Dominy

Shawn Dominy is a DUI/OVI lawyer in Columbus, Ohio. He is the former President of the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the state delegate to the National College for DUI Defense and a long-time member of the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers. Shawn Dominy authored the books 'Ohio DUI/OVI Guide', 'Ohio Vehicular Homicide Guide', and 'Ohio Vehicular Assault Guide' (Rivers Edge Publishing) and wrote a chapter in the book 'Defending Vehicular Homicide Cases' (Aspatore Publishing, 2012). He has several other published articles, and he speaks regularly at seminars teaching other lawyers about DUI/OVI. Shawn was named by SuperLawyers® as one of the top 50 lawyers in Columbus, Ohio, and he is listed as one of the 'Best Lawyers in America'® for DUI Defense. Shawn is a lifelong resident of central Ohio: he graduated from Olentangy High School and earned his bachelor’s degree and juris doctor from The Ohio State University. His office is in Columbus, and he lives in Powell with his wife and daughter. He serves with local community organizations, volunteers regularly at his church, and plays regularly with his German Shepherd. For more information, Shawn’s website is www.dominylaw.com, his blog is www.columbusoviattorneyblog.com,

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