Even though the police had probable cause to search and seize defendant’s vehicle, there were no exigent circumstances to excuse the need to obtain search and seizure warrants.
A witness told police that a vehicle struck a pedestrian who had fallen in the roadway. The vehicle, described as a black Hummer, drove away. Detective Elliott responded to the scene.
Based on the witness’s description, information that the driver of a black Hummer frequented a nearby sports complex and review of security footage from a gas station close to the scene, police were able to determine that defendant Claros was the registered owner of a black Hummer.
The video review also revealed what appeared to be aftermarket rims on the Hummer.
Elliott and Posey, another police detective, went to defendant’s home. While on the street, they saw a black Hummer parked in the carport. A license check revealed that Claros owned the vehicle. They went to the front door and knocked. There was no response. Then the detectives walked around the house to see if anyone was outside, eventually ending up at the carport.
Elliott walked around the hummer, looked at the aftermarket rims and knelt down to check the underside of the vehicle for trace evidence. He saw scrape marks consistent with running over a bag with buttons on it. A “bag or backpack” had been recovered at the accident scene.
At this point, two tenants from the Claros home appeared. The detectives learned defendant was not at home. One tenant called defendant. Elliott had a short conversation with him but did not ask for permission to search the vehicle. Later, a tow truck arrived and took the Hummer to a secure facility.
“Two days after seizing the defendant’s car, Det. Elliott applied for and received a search warrant for the Hummer, specifically to search for ‘[h]uman blood, bone, skin, hair and other tissue, fingerprints, fibers, fabric impressions, paint transfer and plant samples, glass, lamps, lamp filaments, speedometer, gauges, instrument panel, and other motor vehicle parts.’ …
“The Search Warrant Inventory and Return indicates that the following were seized pursuant to the warrant: (1) Hair; (2) Fibers; (3) DNA Swab; and (4) Skid Plate. Det. Elliott indicated that the search warrant of the vehicle resulted in the development of evidence that connected the vehicle to the victim.”
Claros has moved to suppress the evidence because there was no warrant for the initial search of the vehicle while it was in the carport.
Search without warrant
“[W]hen the detectives … proceeded to enter the carport to inspect the underside of the defendant’s vehicle, the defendant did have a reasonable expectation of privacy. … [I]t can hardly be argued that the forward underside of the defendant’s vehicle, parked in the defendant’s carport front-end-in, was a sight ‘knowingly expose[d] to the public.’ …
“[T]he Court finds that the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in (at least) any area of his carport that could not be observed by the public from the street. In this case, that certainly included the space between the front of the defendant’s vehicle and the back of the carport, which is where the detectives were standing and then kneeling. …
“The police needed probable cause to search before entering the carport area in front of the defendant’s car. … [T]he Court finds that the police did have probable cause to believe: (1) that a crime had been committed (felony hit and run); and (2) that evidence of that crime would be found on the defendant’s vehicle.”
No exigent circumstances
“Given the existence of probable cause both to search and seize the vehicle, the Court now turns to the key questions of whether the police had exigent circumstances to search and seize the vehicle without a search warrant. …
“[T]he Commonwealth has not proven that there were exigent circumstances justifying a warrantless search of the defendant’s vehicle. The detectives had adequate time and opportunity to get a search warrant as well as the personnel resources to guard the defendant’s vehicle while the process of obtaining the search warrant was underway. None of the other circumstances, individually or collectively, constitute exigent circumstances to justify the warrantless search of the defendant’s vehicle.”
Nor were there exigent circumstances justifying the Hummer’s seizure without a warrant.
“The evidence derived from the unlawful search and seizure of the defendant’s vehicle must be suppressed.”
Commonwealth v. Claros, Case No. FE-2021-52, July 6, 2022, Fairfax County Circuit Court (Bellows). J. David Gardy for the commonwealth. Brandon R. Shapiro for defendant VLW 022-8-035, 23 pp.