NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING
MOTION AND, IF FILED, DETERMINED
IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF APPEAL
STATE OF FLORIDA,
RONNIE LEE TOWNSEND,
Case No. 2D09-4102
Opinion filed July 16, 2010.
Appeal from the Circuit Court for
Hillsborough County; Denise A. Pomponio,
Bill McCollum, Attorney General,
Tallahassee, and Helene S. Parnes,
Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, for
James Marion Moorman, Public Defender,
and Tosha Cohen, Assistant Public
Defender, Bartow, for Appellee.
The State appeals an order suppressing physical evidence relating to
charges against Ronnie Lee Townsend for possession of cocaine and possession of
drug paraphernalia. Because the suppression issue was dispositive, the trial court
dismissed the charges. We conclude that the search was valid as an inventory search
and reverse the suppression order and remand for reinstatement of the charges.
A deputy obtained the evidence at issue during a search of Townsend's
vehicle following his arrest for violating his restricted driver's license. In his motion to
suppress, Townsend argued that under Arizona v. Gant, 129 S. Ct. 1710 (2009), Deputy
Koehler conducted an illegal search incident to arrest. The State argued that the search
was proper whether it was an inventory search or a search incident to arrest.
At the suppression hearing, Deputy Koehler testified that on March 31,
2009, he stopped Townsend because an obstruction on the vehicle's license tag
covered the expiration sticker. Deputy Koehler asked Townsend for his driver's license
and registration. The registration was for a KIA, but Townsend was driving a Chrysler
Sebring. Deputy Koehler asked Townsend where he was going, and Townsend said
that he was going to a bar to get a drink. When Deputy Koehler ran the license, he
discovered that Townsend had a business purpose only license. Deputy Koehler
arrested Townsend for violation of his restricted license, handcuffed him, and placed
him in the back of the patrol car.
Townsend's vehicle was on the shoulder of the road on the county
easement and was obstructing the bicycle lane. Deputy Koehler determined that
Townsend was the primary registered owner of the vehicle and that Townsend's wife
was the registered co-owner. No one was at the scene who could take possession of
the vehicle, and Deputy Koehler acknowledged that he did not attempt to contact
Townsend's wife to ask if she could remove the vehicle.
Because the vehicle was obstructing the right of way, Deputy Koehler
began the impound procedure for the vehicle. He followed standard operating
procedure 504 of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. He searched the vehicle to
inventory its contents and found a crack cocaine rock on the driver's seat and a glass
crack cocaine pipe under the driver's seat. He then charged Townsend with possession
of cocaine and possession of paraphernalia.
When asked about the impound procedure, Deputy Koehler noted that the
purpose is for "the safety of the vehicle's contents and property for the owner" and "for
safety on the obstruction of a right of way." In his police report, he wrote that he
conducted a search incident to arrest. He did not write that the search was an inventory
search but testified that the search was both incident to arrest and to impounding the
vehicle. The inventory search that he performed was the only search of the vehicle.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court granted the motion to
suppress the physical evidence obtained by Deputy Koehler and stated that the search
was not proper as a search incident to arrest. The court added that an inventory search
as part of impounding the vehicle "would have been fine because it was violating a right
of way. It was on public property and that would have been it." The court noted that it
was making its ruling based on the fact that Deputy Koehler wrote in his report that the
search was a search incident to arrest without mentioning an inventory search.
In its written order, the court reiterated that its decision was based on the
fact that the report only referred to a search incident to arrest. Although the court noted
that Deputy Koehler had the vehicle towed without attempting to contact Townsend's
wife, the court specifically found that "[t]he Deputy was following standard [Hillsborough
County Sheriff's Office] impound procedures ('SOP 504') as to the search, inventory,
and towing of Defendant's vehicle which had to be removed from public property." The
court concluded that the search was not valid as one incident to an arrest and quoted
the following from the Supreme Court's decision in Gant: "Police may search a vehicle
incident to a recent occupant's arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of
the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the
vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest." Gant, 129 S. Ct. at 1723.
We apply a mixed standard of review concerning the ruling on Townsend's
suppression motion. We review the findings of fact for support by competent,
substantial evidence in the record. See State v. Clark, 986 So. 2d 625, 628 (Fla. 2d
DCA 2008). As to the trial court's conclusions on mixed questions of law and fact and
on pure questions of law, we conduct a de novo review. See id.
The trial court correctly determined that, under Gant, Deputy Koehler's
search of the vehicle was not valid as one performed incident to arrest. It is undisputed
that Townsend was not within reaching distance of his vehicle's passenger
compartment when he was handcuffed and in the back of the patrol car. It is also
undisputed that there was no reason to believe the vehicle contained evidence
regarding the restricted license violation.
Nevertheless, the trial court erred by suppressing the evidence. In Gant,
the Supreme Court stated that when a search of a vehicle is not justified as incident to
an arrest, the search "will be unreasonable unless police obtain a warrant or show that
another exception to the warrant requirement applies." 129 S. Ct. at 1723-24. Under
the applicable law, an inventory search as part of the impoundment of a vehicle,
conducted according to standardized procedures, is recognized as an exception to the
warrant requirement. See Nunez v. State, 988 So. 2d 695, 697 (Fla. 2d DCA 2008);
State v. Clark, 986 So. 2d 625, 628 (Fla. 2d DCA 2008); State v. Williams, 516 So. 2d
1081, 1084 (Fla. 2d DCA 1987). Furthermore, an officer is not required to offer an
arrested driver an alternative to impoundment, provided the officer is acting in good
faith. See Robinson v. State, 537 So. 2d 95, 96 (Fla. 1989); Williams, 516 So. 2d at
1084. And it is the nature of the search, not the label the officer places upon it, that
controls. Williams, 516 So. 2d at 1083. The Williams court determined that the search
there was valid both as one incident to arrest (pre-Gant) and as an inventory search. Id.
Here, the trial court's factual findings support the State's argument that
Deputy Koehler's search was a proper inventory search, conducted in accordance with
standardized police procedures, regardless of the label that Officer Koehler gave to the
search in his written report. Townsend's vehicle obstructed the right of way, and Deputy
Koehler was not required to offer an alternative to impoundment before he had the
vehicle towed. The trial court did not make any finding that Deputy Koehler was acting
in bad faith. Rather, the court made the specific finding that Deputy Koehler followed
standard impound procedures "as to the search, inventory, and towing of Defendant's
vehicle which had to be removed from public property." Thus, we conclude that the
search was valid as an inventory search.
Accordingly, we reverse the suppression of the physical evidence and
remand for reinstatement of the charges for possession of cocaine and possession of
Reversed and remanded.
CASANUEVA, C.J., and LaROSE, J., Concur.