On December 27, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled in Commonwealth v. Lagenella that a police officer may not conduct an inventory search of a vehicle that has been immobilized unless it is such a public safety concern that it must be towed and impounded.
On December 31, 2008, appellant Francis Lagenella entered the flow of traffic without using a turn signal, and Corporal Terry Wealand of the Harrisburg Bureau of Police stopped him. When Wealand ran Lagenella’s information and discovered that his driver’s license was suspended, Wealand informed him that the vehicle must be towed and impounded pursuant to department policy, and that an inventory search must be conducted to ensure the safety of Lagenella’s things in the vehicle. Despite the fact that the vehicle was not obstructing traffic and Lagenella had a friend with a truck that could tow the vehicle, Wealand nevertheless immobilized the vehicle and commenced an inventory search. When Wealand offered to give Lagenella his jacket during the search, he found an eyeglasses case with marijuana seeds in it and a powder that was suspected of being cocaine. He then found weapons in the trunk of the vehicle, including a stolen rifle. In a pre-trial motion, Lagenella moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the inventory search was not legal. The trial court denied the motion, and the Superior Court affirmed.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed and remanded the Superior Court’s decision. It must be in the interest of public safety for a police officer to tow and impound an immobilized vehicle, and the driver has 24 hours to remove the safely-parked vehicle before it is towed. 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 6309.2. The Commonwealth argued that unless the vehicle is drivable and there is someone present who can drive the vehicle (as opposed, here, to the friend with a truck who was not present), it must be towed. Lagenella argued that per the language of § 6309.2, towing the vehicle was improper, regardless of the police department’s policy. The Supreme Court agreed with Lagenella and ordered the suppression of the evidence; since towing and impounding the car would be illegal, the inventory search was also illegal. The takeaway from this case is that unless an immobilized vehicle poses an immediate threat to public safety, police may not tow it or conduct an inventory search, even if department policy permits otherwise. An immobilized vehicle is not in the custody of the police unless the driver fails to remove it from the road within 24 hours.
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