State v. Weaver

Decision Date25 July 1995
Docket NumberNo. 21673,21673
Citation127 Idaho 288,900 P.2d 196
PartiesSTATE of Idaho, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Walter WEAVER, Defendant-Appellant, Boise, February 1995 Term
CourtIdaho Supreme Court

Hon. Alan G. Lance, Atty. Gen., Myrna A.I. Stahman, Deputy Atty. Gen., argued, Boise, for respondent.

McDEVITT, Chief Justice.


The facts of this case, based on testimony at the suppression hearing, are as follows. The Weaver family came to the attention of the Kootenai County Sheriff's Department in the fall of 1992, when Appellant Walter Weaver's brother, Bob Weaver, took his wife, Charlotte, hostage during a domestic dispute. Bob was killed during the standoff. A few days after that incident, Charlotte contacted Sergeant Kenneth Sopher (Sgt. Sopher) at the Sheriff's Department about information she had received from members of Bob's family. They had informed Charlotte that Walter Weaver (Weaver) and his mother, Pearl Weaver (Mrs. Weaver), were on their way to Idaho to kill Charlotte in retaliation for Bob's death. They said that Mrs. Weaver possessed a gun. Charlotte conveyed this information to Sgt. Sopher and gave him a description of the car in which Weaver and his mother were travelling. Sgt. Sopher contacted Pennsylvania authorities who informed him that Weaver was on parole for a burglary conviction and was in violation of parole terms for failing to maintain contact with his parole officer.

On October 1, 1992, Sgt. Sopher received a warrant for Weaver's arrest from the State of Pennsylvania. On the same day, Sgt. Sopher received a telephone call from the Idaho State Patrol informing him that Weaver was at that moment standing in the State Patrol offices. Weaver was asking the location of Bob's remains and the address of Charlotte Weaver. Sgt. Sopher requested that the State Patrol officer, under the guise of giving directions to Charlotte's house, direct Weaver to the Kootenai County Sheriff's Department. The State Patrol officer complied. Weaver and his mother left, believing they were on their way to Charlotte's home, but actually driving toward the Sheriff's Department.

Their vehicle was stopped en route by Kootenai County Sheriff's deputies. Weaver was removed from the vehicle and arrested on the Pennsylvania warrant. Mrs. Weaver, who was more than seventy years of age, was also removed from the car and placed in the rear seat of a patrol car for her comfort. Sgt. Sopher then ordered a deputy to inventory the vehicle. The deputy, using a standard sheriff's department inventory form, began searching the automobile and listing the items found. He discovered a handgun under the spare tire in the trunk of the vehicle. A telexed inquiry to the National Crime Information Center yielded information that the gun was stolen. The officer then arrested Mrs. Weaver, who, in the interim had been determined to be the owner of the vehicle, for grand theft by possession of stolen property. The charge against Mrs. Weaver was subsequently dismissed.

Walter Weaver was subsequently charged with unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon, I.C. § 18-3316, and grand theft by possession of stolen property, I.C. §§ 18-2403(4), 18-2407(1). Weaver filed a motion to suppress the gun as evidence, contending that the warrantless search of the automobile was unconstitutional. The trial court denied the motion and held that the search was a valid inventory search following impoundment of the automobile. Weaver then entered a conditional plea of guilty to the charge of unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. The grand theft charge against Weaver was dismissed.

On October 17, 1994, the Court of Appeals issued an opinion affirming the district court's order. In reaching its decision, the court reasoned that Sgt. Sopher's conclusion, that Mrs. Weaver was physically incapable of driving the car and impoundment of the vehicle was therefore necessary, was reasonable at the time that it was made. Thus, the court concluded, impoundment of the vehicle was permissible and an inventory search of its contents pursuant to standard police procedures was reasonable.

On November 7, 1994, this Court, pursuant to its authority to review Court of Appeals decisions sua sponte, issued an order for review.




On appeal from a decision of the Court of Appeals, this Court considers that it is hearing the matter in the first instance, and not merely reviewing the correctness of the Court of Appeals decision. Valley Bank v. Stecklein, 124 Idaho 694, 696, 864 P.2d 140, 142 (1993). In all cases when questions of law are presented, this Court is not bound by the district court's findings, but is free to draw its own conclusions from evidence presented. Automobile Club Ins. Co. v. Jackson, 124 Idaho 874, 865, 876, 865 P.2d 965, 967 (1993).


The district court did not cite any case authority for its order denying Weaver's motion to suppress. However, there is a well-established body of jurisprudence, from this Court and the United States Supreme Court, governing the reasonableness of warrantless inventory searches under the Fourth Amendment.

Warrantless searches are presumptively unreasonable. State v. Woolery, 116 Idaho 368, 370, 775 P.2d 1210, 1212 (1989), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 114 S.Ct. 1623, 128 L.Ed.2d 348 (1944). The burden of proof rests with the State to demonstrate that the search either fell within a well-recognized exception to the warrant requirement or was otherwise reasonable under the circumstances. Id.

When the police have lawfully impounded an automobile in carrying out their community caretaking function, they are permitted to inventory its contents. Such warrantless inventory searches, when conducted in compliance with standard and established police procedures and not as a pretext for criminal investigation, do not offend Fourth Amendment strictures against unreasonable searches and seizures. Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367, 374, 107 S.Ct. 738, 742, 93 L.Ed.2d 739 (1987); South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 374-75, 96 S.Ct. 3092, 3099-100, 49 L.Ed.2d 1000 (1976); State v. Smith, 120 Idaho 77, 80-81, 813 P.2d 888, 891 (1991).

An inventory following impoundment is a reasonable and legitimate means to safeguard the owner's property, to prevent claims against the police for lost or stolen property, and to protect the police and others from dangerous instrumentalities that may be inside the vehicle. Bertine, 479 U.S. at 374, 107 S.Ct. at 742; Opperman, 428 U.S. at 372, 96 S.Ct. at 3098-99; Smith, 120 Idaho at 80, 813 P.2d at 891. However, the impoundment itself must be lawful. An impoundment of a vehicle constitutes a seizure and is thus subject to the limitations of the Fourth Amendment. If the impoundment violates the Fourth Amendment, the accompanying inventory is also tainted, and evidence found in the search must be suppressed.

In order to comport with the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable seizures, an impoundment must be reasonable under all the circumstances known to the police when the decision to impound was made. Opperman, 428 U.S. at 372-73, 96 S.Ct. at 3099. In State v. Hobson, 95 Idaho 920, 523 P.2d 523 (1974), we adopted the standard announced by the United States Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968), for analyzing the reasonableness of an officer's conduct in a seizure context. First, this Court stated, the information underlying the seizure must possess specificity and some indicia of reliability. In this regard, the officer's conduct must be judged against an objective standard:

would the facts available to the officer at the moment of the seizure or search 'warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief' that the action taken was appropriate? [Citations omitted]. Anything less would invite intrusions upon constitutionally guaranteed rights based on nothing more substantial than inarticulate hunches.... [Citations omitted]. And simple 'good faith on the part of the ... officer is not enough'.... If subjective good faith alone were the test, the protections of the Fourth Amendment would evaporate, and the people would be 'secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects,' only in the discretion of the police.

Hobson, 95 Idaho at 925, 523 P.2d at 528 (quoting Terry, at 392 U.S. at 21, 88 S.Ct. at 1880) (alterations in Hobson ). The applicability of this standard to the search and seizure of an automobile was noted in State v. Godwin, 121 Idaho 491, 496, 826 P.2d 452, 457 (1992) (McDevitt, J., specially concurring).

In Bertine, the United States Supreme Court held that police may exercise discretion in determining whether to impound a vehicle, provided that discretion is exercised according to standard criteria and on the basis of something other than suspicion of evidence of criminal activity. 479 U.S. at 375, 107 S.Ct. at 743.


Applying the foregoing standards to the facts here, the question becomes what facts were available to Sgt. Sopher at the moment of his decision to impound the vehicle, and was the impound conducted according to the Kootenai County Sheriff Department's standard c...

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