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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > June 2014 > Searches and Seizures of Vehicles (Abandoned Property): State of Ohio v. Warner

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Searches and Seizures of Vehicles (Abandoned Property): State of Ohio v. Warner

Question: Can you search a trunk of an “abandoned” vehicle without a warrant?
Quick Answer: Yes, if an individual intended to abandon the vehicle, through words or actions, he loses his right to privacy, and search without a warrant is proper.

State of Ohio v. Warner, Eleventh Appellate District, Portage County, May 5, 2014
Facts: Officer Dominic Poe of the Kent Police Department activated his lights to pull over Raymond Warner for a turn-signal violation. Warner turned into a driveway, parked, and ran. Due to the presence of a passenger, Poe did not chase Warner. Instead, he ran the registration and found the car did not belong to Warner. Poe called in a tow truck because the vehicle was abandoned. He performed an inventory search, finding meth and the purse of the owner inside the car as well as a digital scale with powder residue, a bag of lithium batteries, Warner’s Social Security card, aluminum foil, a pipe cutter, and a bottle of suspected muriatic acid in the trunk. Warner filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in the trunk.
Importance: In general, an inventory of a vehicle does not allow the search of a closed trunk. However, if the vehicle is determined to be abandoned, searching the trunk is proper. To determine if a vehicle is abandoned, you look to the intent (words or actions) of the person. In this case, Warner ran from the vehicle. The act of running shows abandonment through action. When a person abandons his property, he loses any expectation of privacy, and a search is proper without a warrant.
Keep in Mind: The individual must carry out the act of abandonment voluntarily. The determination of whether the person acted voluntarily is also based on your stop. If a person abandons a vehicle after an illegal stop, that vehicle will not be classified as abandoned for search purposes — even if the person runs away. In this case, Poe witnessed Warner fail to signal, a violation of traffic law, making the stop legal. As a result, Warner voluntarily abandoned the vehicle, and the search of the trunk was proper.
Another Look: Check out the case of Nicholas Newton, in which the court determined that a rifle used to murder an individual was abandoned property. As a result, Newton had no right of protection under the Fourth Amendment to the rifle, including the DNA traces found on it. State of Ohio v. Newton, Tenth Appellate District, Franklin County, May 8, 2014
More on Search and Seizure: Vehicles
  • Do you have to ticket for every reasonable suspicion? While on patrol, you pass a car with a loud sound system going the opposite direction at a high rate of speed. You turn your cruiser around and follow the driver, activating your overhead lights after watching the car go left of center. You think this may be a possible OVI due to the surrounding bar scene. When you approach, the driver rolls down his window and you smell burnt marijuana. You have the two men exit the vehicle and you search the car, finding a loaded pistol magazine and marijuana. You give a citation for a marked lane violation and loud sound system, but not OVI or speed. Based on your charges, was the search proper? The court in Holland says yes. An officer’s reasonable articulable suspicion is based on a collection of factors to make a traffic stop. It doesn’t mean a citation has to be issued for each suspicion. In this case, the video showed the vehicle cross the center line, a clear violation of law. The court determined the stop was proper, and the search was permitted after the officer smelled the marijuana. State of Ohio v. Holland, Tenth Appellate District, Franklin County, May 8, 2014
  • Are those balloons in your car? You respond to a call for shoplifting. Both suspects are very suspicious, tell you different stories about their whereabouts, and admit to shoplifting. You then take one of the suspects outside to talk. He points out the vehicle he drove to the store, which you believe may have been involved in an earlier drug deal. He says the vehicle is not his, but you run the tags and find he had purchased it a few days earlier. You shine your flashlight through the window onto the seat and see a duffle bag with an unzipped pocket containing multicolored balloons and white pills. You decide to search the vehicle and find a variety of drug paraphernalia, drugs, material to make methamphetamine, and a handgun. Was this search proper? The court in Chaffins said yes. Under the automobile exception, you are allowed to search portions of a vehicle if you have probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime. In this case, the officer knew the vehicle was likely associated with a drug case, observed that the suspects were lying and acting suspicious, and saw pills and balloons (known to him as a way to transport drugs) in plain view in the car. The court determined he had probable cause under the automobile exception for the search. State of Ohio v. Chaffins, Fourth Appellate District, Scioto County, May 7, 2014