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Can Police Seize Your Car Several Hours After Your Arrest?

In general, if the police have probable cause to suspect that a car is carrying illegal contraband such as drugs, they can legally search the vehicle even if they have not first obtained a search warrant. This is a judge-created exception to the Fourth Amendment’s normal prohibition against warrantless searches. In practice, this usually means that when the police stop and arrest the driver of a vehicle on drug charges, they will also immediately seize and impound the vehicle.

Court of Special Appeals Upholds Drug Conviction

What if the police do not immediately take the car? What if they wait several hours and return to the scene after the suspect is already in custody? Is this later search still protected by the “automobile exception” to the Fourth Amendment?

A recent unpublished decision from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, Boward v. State, explains how the law works in these situations. This case involved a drug bust outside of a Wal-Mart store. A police informant conducted a “controlled buy” of narcotics from a man (who we will call the “co-defendant”) inside the store’s bathroom. The co-defendant then left the store and entered a Honda Accord driven by the defendant.

The police immediately arrested both defendants on the spot. Both defendants were searched. The vehicle itself was neither searched nor seized at that time. The police agent in charge later testified that, “[w]e were just going to let the vehicle be until either [the defendant] got released that night or he could make arrangements” for someone else to pick up the Accord.

However, the co-defendant subsequently told police during interrogation that the Accord contained additional narcotics. At that point, several hours after the initial arrest, the agent decided to return to the scene and impound the vehicle. The agent parked his own vehicle behind the Accord and waited for a tow truck to arrive. After the vehicle was impounded, the agent obtained and executed a search warrant, which discovered the drugs mentioned by the co-defendant.

Prosecutors charged the defendant with possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance (in this case, fentanyl), and upon conviction received a sentence of 10 years in prison. On appeal, the defendant argued the belated seizure and search of the Accord was illegal. The Court of Special Appeals disagreed. The automobile exception permitted the police to seize a vehicle first and then search it where there was probable cause. Here, the agent had the statements of the co-defendant stating drugs were in the Accord, which provided ample probable cause. The fact there was a delay of several hours in seizing the vehicle made no difference. The appellate court said there was no violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights.

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This article has been provided by the Law Office of Robert Castro. For more information or questions contact our office to speak to an experienced lawyer at (301) 705-5137.