ALBANY - The state’s highest court today upheld a State Police vehicle impoundment policy that, in the case of a Buffalo man, led to his arrest on a weapon possession charge after police searched the car before towing it away.
A state trooper pulled over Samuel Walker in Buffalo in 2009 when he saw that the passenger in the car, who was Walker’s girlfriend, was not wearing a seatbelt.
Police found Walker’s license had been revoked and he was arrested. The trooper then prepared the vehicle to be impounded by searching it to make an inventory list of items when he discovered a loaded handgun behind the passenger seat.
Walker, who later pleaded guilty to the weapons charge and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison, argued that the police should have asked if his passenger was licensed to drive the car away from the scene before trying to impound it, a process that led to the weapon being discovered.
“We hold that no such inquiry was necessary,” the Court of Appeals ruled this morning in upholding two prior court defeats for Walker in the case.
Since the actual owner of the vehicle - Walker’s sister - was not present, the police conducted what the court called a “reasonable procedure” by impounding the car.
“The trooper was not required, as a matter of constitutional law, to raise the question, or to initiate a phone call to the owner,” the court said of Walker’s claim that the trooper should have inquired about his passenger being able to drive the car from the scene before the search.
“When a car has been lawfully impounded, the reasonable expectation of the person who was driving it that its contents will remain private is significantly diminished. In such a case, the driver presumably expects the police to find whatever is in the car,” the court noted.
Walker’s lawyers contended the State Police policy is in place for the convenience of police and that, citing a federal case, its failure to make an effort to contact the owner of the car after Walker’s arrest failed to “strike the requisite appropriate balance between citizens’ privacy and property interests on the one hand and any legitimate governmental interest on the other.”