Can police seize a car before getting a warrant?
If your car is parked in your own driveway, next to your house, can police officers have it towed away without first obtaining a search warrant?
That’s the question troubling Bruce Locher, the attorney who first complained about Springfield Police detectives Paul Carpenter and Jim Graham, both of whom were terminated in 2006 for violating department policies and procedures. Locher, who specializes in criminal defense work, is now questioning the tactics of another squad of officers, SPD’s newly-formed Street Crimes Unit.
The six-officer team has accumulated an impressive arrest record in its first
year of existence, winning the chief’s citation award. The team is supervised by Sgt. Matt Fricke, the former
neighborhood police officer assigned to the east side, where he earned a
stellar reputation for fairness and hard work [see “The natural,” June 9, 2005].
This summer, Fricke and his former neighborhood police partner, Sgt. Chris Russell, had a car towed from a private driveway to an SPD facility, and didn’t get a search warrant until 8:05 the next night. The subsequent search turned up ammunition, a ballistics vest and a digital scale, but no guns or drugs — items the officers expected to find in the car. They then had the car towed back to the house.
Search warrant requests are traditionally reviewed by the Sangamon County State’s Attorney’s office, but it’s unclear whether the office approved the warrant in this case. John Milhiser, the first assistant state’s attorney, says the file doesn’t indicate whether a prosecutor reviewed it.
“The question is the expectation of privacy in your driveway when the driveway’s not in any way protected. I’m not going to say it’s cool, but if charges are filed and a defense attorney has a problem with it, they can file a motion to suppress and a court can decide,” he says.
That scenario isn’t relevant in this case, because months later, no charges have been filed against anyone associated with the vehicle.
SPD Deputy Chief Clay Dowis says the officers did nothing improper by towing the car without a warrant. They were acting on a tip from a credible confidential source, and a canine officer that they had sniff the car indicated that the vehicle contained drugs.
“A car has less privacy rights than a house, due to its inherent mobility,” he says.
“We can walk on private property like that unless it’s fenced in or posted no-trespass,” Dowis says, adding that cops have the same rights as mail carriers or civilian neighbors. He points to the anonymous source as the key to the search: “You have to look at the people involved,” Dowis says.
SPD reports regarding the car list Thefillio Jefferson as suspect in a case of unlawful use of a weapon by a felon. Jefferson pleaded guilty in 1997 to a class 1 felony, aggravated discharge of a firearm. Documents filed to obtain the search warrant show that a confidential informant had told another officer that Jefferson had sold “large quantities of powder and crack cocaine” locally, and was known to stash drugs and “an AK-47” in a car parked in his mother’s driveway. An indictment handed up in October charges Jefferson with a Class X felony for manufacture or delivery of cocaine, stemming from a 2006 incident.
Locher, who represents Jefferson’s mother, Brenda Jefferson, disputes Dowis’s interpretation of the law. “The officers weren’t up there to deliver the mail,” he says. “The Constitution says you can’t do that.”
Contact Dusty Rhodes at firstname.lastname@example.org.