Exiting and locking your car doesn’t automatically prevent search incident to arrest

State v. Adams, Court of Appeals Division I, filed September 2, 2008.

Police observed a man sitting in his parked car outside a casino. The registered owner of the vehicle had an outstanding arrest warrant for a revoked driver’s license. The driver matched the registered owner’s description, so the police officer turned around to contact the driver. The driver drove away and the police officer followed. The driver turned into a Taco Bell driveway and parked. The police officer turned on its emergency lights and pulled in behind the car.

The driver, Mr. Adams, stepped out of his vehicle, stood in the open car door, and yelled at the officer that the stop was racial profiling. The police officer instructed Mr. Adams to get back in his car, but Mr. Adams kept yelling. The officer called for back-up. Mr. Adams slammed the car door, locked it, and stepped four to five feet away into the adjacent parking lot, where he continued to yell at the police officer and raise his arms in an agitated manner.

When the second officer arrived, Mr. Adams complied with police instructions. He was put in handcuffs and instructed to identify himself, which he refused. The officer frisked him and removed his keys and wallet, confirming his identity as the registered owner. He was arrested on the warrant and for failing to provide information. The second officer took his keys and unlocked his vehicle. The officers searched the passenger compartment and found cocaine in the center console. The officers impounded the vehicle.

Mr. Adams contested the search and moved to suppress the cocaine. The trial court denied his motion. Mr. Adams was convicted of possessing cocaine.

Washington permits automobile searches incident to arrest “immediately subsequent to the suspect’s being arrested, handcuffed, and placed in a patrol car,” where there is a close physical and temporal proximity between the arrest and the search. The Court of Appeals reviewed other similar cases from Divisions II and III dealing with searches incident to arrests involving automobiles, specifically the question of how close the arrestee must be to the vehicle.

The Court of Appeals reviewed State v. Perea from Division II. In that case, Mr. Perea was observed driving a vehicle, had a suspended license, parked in his front yard and the police officer pulled in behind him and turned on his emergency lights. Mr. Perea exited the car, closed and locked the door, and walked towards his house. The officer ordered Mr. Perea back to his vehicle, but Mr. Perea kept warlking. When a second officer arrived, Mr. Perea was arrested and handcuffed. The officers seized his keys, unlocked and searched the car, and found a loaded pistol. Court of Appeals, Division II, ruled that the search of the car was unlawful because the officers had no justification for entry into the car, but distinguished its holding from cases where the defendant locked his car after seizure.

In this case, the Court of Appeals, Division I questioned the usefulness of Perea because its analysis on this case focuses on the arrestee’s proximity to the vehicle at the time of the arrest due to officer safety and evidence preservation issues. The Court of Appeals in this case also finds that it takes only a second to unlock a car door for an arrestee to gain access to a weapon or exposed evidence. The Court held that a vehicle locked in the presence of investigating officers is not equivalent to a locked container inside a vehicle.

Ultimately, the Court held that Mr. Adams was in close temporal and spatial proximity to his car when he was arrested as he was never more than 4 or 5 feet away and was at all times closer than the police officer. He retained the keys to the car and could have reached it in a few steps. Additionally, unlike the defendants in many of the other cases examined (Porter, Rathbun, and Quinlivan), Mr. Adams did not move away from his car. He was agitated and belligerent and the officer had legitimate officer safety concerns. Therefore, Mr. Adams was a recent occupant in immediate control of his car at the time of arrest and the search was justified.