Yesterday, the Oregon Court of Appeals held that the Cornelius Oregon Police Department did not act in good faith reliance on then-existing law when it impounded and searched a car that was parked in its owner's driveway.
While the opinion is a welcome and somewhat obvious one, the real issue is how did such a seemingly easy case take so long to resolve? Part of the answer is no doubt the unreasonable positions taken by the prosecution team during the entire course of the case.
A Cornelius police officer witnessed Richard Gonzales commit a minor traffic infraction. Rather than pulling him over immediately to give him a ticket the officer followed him as he drove home and parked his car in his own driveway. The officer then contacted Mr. Gonzales and learned Gonzales' license was suspended. He then had Mr. Gonzales' car "impounded" - even though it was parked in his driveway. Once he impounded the car he then searched it to "inventory" its contents. Inside Mr. Gonzales wallet which was still in the car he located some cocaine and Mr. Gonzales was arrested.
On appeal the government argued that the impoundment of the car was legal under what is called the "Community Caretaking" exception to the warrant requirement. The problem however is that longstanding Supreme Court case law holds that this exception allows police to seize cars without a warrant when they jeopardize public safety or impede the efficient flow of traffic. This exception clearly does not apply to a car parked in one's own driveway.
Nonetheless, and conceding that the trial court may have erred in this regard the government argued further on appeal that even if the seizure of the car was not lawful under the community caretaking exception, that the officer who impounded the car did so in "good faith" reliance on then-existing law allowing for such seizures. The problem with that argument is that no then-existing law (state or otherwise) authorized such a seizure. In fact Ninth Circuit federal case-law had made it clear that such a scenario was a clear violation of the warrant requirement.
So the court yesterday finally held in 2014 that the seizure of Mr. Gonzales' vehicle from his driveway in Washington County in 2007 was patently and obviously unconstitutional. Seven years it took to answer this question?...A question any first year law student could have answered in 5 minutes. And Mr. Gonzales? He completed his sentence of probation. A sentence he never should have served. Thankfully he did not go to prison for this wrongful conviction. That being said we doubt very much that the prosecution or the court will stand up and admit their egregious errors...much less offer to compensate Mr. Gonzales for his experience.
This scenario plays out over and over again in the courts. Meritorious claims if lost at the trial level will result in unlawful convictions and hte service of unlawful sentences. These sentences - prison, probation or otherwise will often be served in their entirety before a client is vindicated on appeal. By the time the case works its way through the appellate courts the victory can often ring hollow. Protect yourself from the risk of unlawful convcitions by hiring a knowledgeable and experienced criminal defense attorney.