The Ninth Circuit court of Appeals just upheld the admissibility of drug and firearm evidence in a case where law enforcement conducted an illegal search of a vehicle under the doctrine of inevitable discovery. In United States v. Ruckes, the Court followed the recent Supreme Court decision of Arizona v. Gant. Gant limits searches of automobiles, pursuant to the driver’s arrest, to situations where the driver is “unsecured and within reaching distance” of the interior of the car at the time of the search or where it is reasonable to expect evidence related to the crime underlying the arrest might be found in the vehicle. In Ruckes, the driver was arrested for driving without a license and secured in the back of a patrol vehicle. The Court found that since no evidence related to unlawful driving might be found in the car, and since Mr. Ruckes posed no danger of getting a weapon from the car at the time of the search, the search would otherwise be illegal under the Gant decision. However, the Court allowed evidence of cocaine base and possession of a gun to be used against Ruckes under the doctrine of inevitable discovery, a recognized exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Inevitable discovery exists in Ruckes because an inventory search of the car would have revealed the evidence independent of the illegal conduct of the officer.
The lesson Ruckes teaches is that criminal defense lawyers will have to be alert for the application of inevitable discovery in vehicle search cases, especially as there are multiple provisions under California law allowing for the towing and impounding of cars upon the arrest of the driver. Still, criminal attorneys can try to establish that the impound search itself was a pretext to look for other evidence, as pretext law is still favorably applied in some limited situations, such as inventory searches. If it can be proved that the inventory search was conducted for a pretextual purpose, the search would be illegal so therefore could not be upheld under the inevitable discovery doctrine and the court would be obligated to rule for suppression of the evidence.