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Davis v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia

February 27, 2015

DAVIS
v.
THE STATE

Reconsideration denied March 16, 2015 -- Cert. applied for.

Motion to suppress. Clarke Superior Court. Before Judge Stephens.

Judgment affirmed.

Benjamin A. Pearlman, for appellant.

Kenneth W. Mauldin, District Attorney, Emily K. Norris, Brian V. Patterson, Assistant District Attorneys, for appellee.

DOYLE, Presiding Judge. Miller and Dillard, JJ., concur.

OPINION

Page 184

Doyle, Presiding Judge.

Preston Davis was charged with possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute,[1] obstruction of a police officer,[2] driving without proof of insurance,[3] and improper use of the center lane.[4] He appeals the denial of his motion to suppress, arguing that the impoundment of his vehicle and subsequent inventory search were unlawful. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

When reviewing a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress,

this Court must be guided by three fundamental precepts: first, when a motion to suppress is heard by the trial judge sitting as the trier of fact, the judge hears the evidence and the judge's findings on conflicting evidence are analogous to a jury verdict, and consequently, should not be disturbed by the appellate court if there is any evidence to support them; second, the trial court's decisions on questions of fact and credibility are to be accepted unless they are clearly erroneous; and third, the appellate court must construe the evidence most favorably to the upholding of the trial court's findings and judgment. Such precepts are equally applicable whether the trial court rules in favor of the State or the defendant.[5]

So viewed, the record shows that on September 18, 2013, at approximately 10:00 p.m., an Athens-Clarke County police officer observed a 2002 Audi, which Davis was driving, turn out of an apartment complex and travel more than 300 feet in the center turn lane. While following Davis, the officer ran the Audi's license plate through the computer and determined that the car was not insured. After confirming with dispatch that the vehicle did not have valid insurance, the officer

Page 185

activated his blue lights, and Davis pulled over to the side of the road near an overpass.

When the officer informed Davis that his computer reflected that Davis's vehicle was not covered by insurance, Davis produced a binder from his insurance agent showing that insurance on the vehicle took effect on August 14, 2013. According to the officer, the [331 Ga.App. 172] paperwork showed that the policy provided coverage for 30 days, and the 30 days had already expired.[6] Davis then produced an insurance card with a policy for a separate vehicle and advised that it reflected " the policy number under which the Audi should be covered." In an effort to verify coverage, the officer called an after-hours number for the insurance company and was told by the operator that the policy for that particular vehicle could not be located.[7]

The officer then called for a wrecker to tow the vehicle and began an inventory search at the front of Davis's car. When the officer leaned down to activate the trunk latch, Davis fled on foot. After pursuing him, the officer returned to the vehicle and discovered in the trunk " in plain view" a plastic grocery bag containing marijuana, $2,275 in small denomination bills, bags, and rolling paper.[8]

Following his arrest, Davis moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the traffic stop, impoundment, and inventory search of his car were unlawful. At the suppression hearing, Davis's insurance agent testified that Davis had valid insurance at the time of the stop and that the after-hours operator, who was not local, would not necessarily have access to this information. The agent conceded, however, that

for whatever reason, ... the database that shows in the tag office that someone has insurance and [State Farm] [in]putting in that policy did not sync up. So after that 30-day binder expired, it appeared as though there was no insurance in the database even though there was.

The State Farm agent also testified that the insurance binder Davis showed the officer " would not indicate valid insurance after the 30 days."

Davis elicited testimony from the officer that his sole training with respect to conducting an inventory search was to fill out a form listing items to be noted. The officer also testified, however, that police department policy required that before having vehicles towed, officers conduct an inventory search to look for " the spare tire, the jack, stereo and audio player, any special equipment, [and] the glove [331 Ga.App. 173] compartment, and any damaged parts need to be noted, and anything other -- special or anything remarks that need to be made."

The trial court denied the motion to suppress, finding that " [t]he police officer had a reasonable and articulable suspicion to stop the vehicle and was authorized to conduct an inventory search of the vehicle." Davis obtained a certificate of immediate review, and this Court granted his application for an interlocutory appeal. On appeal, Davis argues that the impoundment of his vehicle and subsequent inventory search were unlawful. We disagree.

Davis does not challenge the officer's decision to initiate a traffic stop. Instead, he argues that there was no lawful reason for the impoundment because although the database the officer checked indicated that Davis's vehicle was not insured, the printed materials Davis provided demonstrated proof of coverage. This argument overlooks his insurance agent's testimony that the binder had expired and would not show valid proof of coverage 30 days after issuance. Under these circumstances, the officer's decision to prohibit Davis from driving his car was not improper.[9] The next question, therefore, is

Page 186

whether the impoundment of the vehicle was proper.[10]

It is well settled that " [c]ases supporting the State's right to impound a vehicle ... are founded on a doctrine of necessity." [11]

Under that doctrine, while the police may not impound a car to search for contraband, they may impound a vehicle if they [331 Ga.App. 174] must take charge of it for some reason. And ultimately, the test for the validity of the police's conduct is whether, under the circumstances then confronting the police, their conduct was reasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. More specifically, the test is whether the impoundment was reasonably necessary under the circumstances, not whether it was absolutely necessary. Furthermore, subsequent to a reasonable impoundment, the contents of an impounded vehicle are routinely inventoried to protect the property of the owner, protect the officers against claims for lost or stolen property, and protect the police from potential danger. Finally, inventories conducted by the police pursuant to standard police procedures are deemed to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.[12]

Here, Davis's car was parked on the side of a major road late at night, and because there was no proof that the vehicle was insured, towing it was the only viable option for removing it from the roadway. And there is no evidence that Davis expressed a preference for a towing company. Under these circumstances, the trial court did not err by finding that impoundment was reasonably necessary.[13]

Davis also argues that the inventory search was invalid because there was no evidence that it was conducted pursuant to an established police department policy. He relies upon Capellan v. State,[14] in which this Court held that a police inventory search was unreasonable because, given the lack of evidence

Page 187

of police department policy on inventory searches or a reasonable inventory procedure, " it is difficult, if not impossible, to conclude that the inventory was conducted [331 Ga.App. 175] pursuant to such policy and not simply a 'rummaging' to discover incriminating evidence." [15]

Here, there was evidence that Athens-Clarke County Police Department policy required an inventory search of all vehicles prior to towing in order to provide a list of valuables, damage to the vehicle, or other notable issues or items, and that the officer was trained in how to complete the inventory form. Thus, the trial court did not err by concluding that the officer's decision to search Davis's car was proper.[16]

Judgment affirmed.

Miller and Dillard, JJ., concur.


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