Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Colorado Supreme Court People v. Vaughn 12SA70

Decision here.

   A police officer saw Vaughn make an illegal turn, and checked his license plate against the DMV database.  There was no DMV record.  The officer pulled Vaughn over.  During the traffic stop, Vaughn's license was found to be suspended (the officer found this information in the DMV's database, and then confirmed it by calling a DMV 24 hour hotline).

   Vaughn was arrested, and his car was towed.  While inventorying the car, the officer found crack cocaine packaged for distribution.  The traffic charges were now the least of Vaughn's problems.

   The trial court, however, suppressed the drug evidence.  Their "reasoning" was that since the officer wasn't required to arrest Vaughn for driving on a suspended license, and could have chosen to just issue him a summons, and since there wasn't probable cause to believe that the car contained contraband, the evidence was inadmissible.

   As is only reasonable when faced with a judge who apparently gets his legal expertise from TV cop dramas, the people filed an interlocutory appeal.  The Colorado Supreme Court reversed the suppression order.  The Court ruled that the initial traffic stop was justified by reasonable suspicion (the officer witnessed a traffic violation, and the officer found that there was no DMV record of the license plate.  Either one of these facts would have justified the stop independently).  The Court ruled that there was probable cause to arrest Vaughn for driving on a suspended license, so the arrest was valid.  Whether or not the officer was required to make an arrest is irrelevant, because the arrest was supported by probable cause.  And finally, the Court ruled that the inventory of Vaughn's car was conducted pursuant to a standardized department procedure.

   Vaughn also argued that the arrest was invalid because his license wasn't actually suspended (apparently there was a clerical error at the DMV).  The officer was entitled to good faith reliance on the DMV's records, though, so the information available to him at the time off the arrest supported probable cause.  Vaughn also argued that opening the locked glove box (using a key found in the car) exceeded the scope of an inventory search.  The Court held that the search of the locked glove box was valid because it was done in compliance with the department's procedures for inventorying vehicles.

   Suppression order reversed, case remanded to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this ruling.

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