Oregon court expands warrantless vehicle searches

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) —The Oregon Court of Appeals has broadened the reach of warrantless vehicle searches, adding to a controversial area of state law that has expanded police powers considerably since it was first taken up in the 1980s.

The court ruled this week that everything connected to a car, including a trailer, is available to a warrantless search. In doing so, it sided with prosecutors who had appealed a trial court's decision to invalidate a search.

The state law that gave police the power to search cars suspected of criminal involvement is rooted in a 1986 case that said police must first pull over a vehicle in order to search it without a warrant. That was later challenged and updated: Police had only to see the vehicle moving, or "encounter" it, to later search it.

The appeals court ruling this week stemmed from a drug bust in Silverton in 2011, when a detective watched Jerry E. Finlay sell methamphetamine to a police informant. Finlay drove to the meeting in a pickup truck towing a trailer, which he used to run his landscaping business.

In a second meeting later that year, the detective watched Finlay park at a restaurant. Finlay walked inside but quickly decided to leave and was arrested 100 feet from his truck. Police searched Finlay and found no drugs, but the detective ordered a search of the car and trailer, where police found methamphetamine.

At trial, Finlay's attorneys successfully suppressed the evidence obtained from the warrantless search, saying police didn't "encounter" Finlay's truck until they arrested him, when the truck was parked. Therefore, neither his truck nor his trailer was subject to search. The appeals court remanded the case back to the trial court, with the understanding that the evidence can be introduced at trial.

The Oregon Supreme Court has ruled that parked cars are not mobile and therefore require warrants to search.

Advocates of warrantless searches say they are among the most useful tools available to police. By their nature, roadside stops or investigations of movable vehicles require immediate action from law enforcement. To let people drive away is essentially leaving suspects alone with a crime scene, free to destroy evidence.

National case law on vehicle searches dates back to the dawn of the mass-produced automobile, when a bootlegger ferrying liquor across Michigan was stopped and his car searched without a warrant.

In the 1925 case, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling: Given probable cause, police did not require a warrant to search a vehicle.

Opponents of the expansion of the automobile exception say the Oregon courts have repeatedly allowed prosecutors and police to broaden their rationale for searching vehicles.

The situation, critics say, has allowed for a "permanent emergency," in which police and prosecutors can summon any reason for searching a car, and courts will later nearly always rule that the warrantless search was justified.

"(The ruling on Thursday is) another chapter of poking at this concept of mobility," said Dan Bennett, a deputy in the Office of Public Defense Services in Salem in an interview. "They've expanded it and expanded it and expanded it."

Bennett wrote an essay in Oregon Defense Attorney magazine analyzing the "automobile exception."

"It is past time for the automobile exception to go," Bennett wrote in the essay. "The exception has long since served whatever purpose it had, and (police) should once again be required to request warrants."

Bennett said in the interview that the issue of warrantless searches should be increasingly moot — the advent of cellphones, for one thing, should allow better communication to permit the quick issuance of warrants.

Bennett cited an Oregon Supreme Court footnote in a ruling on a 1986 case involving the automobile exception that envisioned "a central facility with magistrates on duty and available 24 hours a day" as an indication that the courts are moving closer to forbidding warrantless searches, not seeking to broaden their use.

___

Reach reporter Nigel Duara on Twitter .

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.