Bloomberg Law
Nov. 25, 2019, 7:27 PMUpdated: Nov. 25, 2019, 10:19 PM

California Cops Can’t Search Vehicles for ID Without Warrant (1)

Joyce E. Cutler
Joyce E. Cutler
Staff Correspondent

California police can’t search inside a suspect’s vehicle for identification if the driver refuses to produce a license and registration on demand, the state Supreme Court ruled Nov. 25 in a case of first impression.

The justices concluded police made an unreasonable search by entering a vehicle to locate a driver’s ID. In this case, police found methamphetamine in the search of a driver’s purse. The trial court suppressed the evidence.

The 4-3 court held the desire to obtain a driver’s ID following a traffic stop doesn’t constitute an independent, categorical exception to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement for a warrant. The decision strikes an exception created in a 2002 California decision upholding such identification searches, provided they extend only to those areas within the vehicle where “such documentation reasonably could be expected to be found.”

“In the end, the test for whether an exception should be recognized is not whether, in its absence, there might be some cost in effective enforcement of the traffic laws; it is, instead, whether the tradeoff to lower that risk is worth the coin in diminished privacy,” Justice Leondra Kruger wrote for the majority.

“The price of giving officers the ‘discretion to rummage at will among a person’s private effects’ whenever that person has committed a traffic infraction is a high one,” Kruger said. “It is not a price we should lightly require California drivers to pay.”

The appeals court had upheld the search of Maria Elena Lopez’s vehicle for identification under a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that only allows police to execute a warrantless search of a vehicle’s passenger compartment incident to arrest if it’s reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime for which the occupant was arrested might be found.

“Today’s California Supreme Court decision in Lopez is a win for those who believe in the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches by the police,” Michael M. Epstein, director of the Amicus Project at Southwestern Law School, told Bloomberg Law in an email. The Amicus Project had argued in the case that the appeals court incorrectly expanded the case law’s exceptions.

‘Considerable Retilling’

Police stopped Lopez after receiving a report of a car driving erratically. The officer didn’t observe Lopez driving erratically and noted no vehicle violations, nor did she smell of alcohol or appear to be intoxicated.

The officer “never so much as asked Lopez her name. Instead, after detaining Lopez for a suspected traffic infraction, the officer proceeded directly to searching the purse on the passenger’s seat,” the majority said.

The “field of vehicle searches is one that has been the subject of considerable retilling over the years,” the majority said. Police have relied on the exception about searching for documentation, the court acknowledged.

But the exception existed in California, and “Given this history, reliance interests have less force,” Kruger wrote. “And here, too, we conclude that the reliance interests at stake cannot justify continuation of a practice that results in recurring and unwarranted invasions of individual privacy.”

The ruling returns the case to the trial court.

Justice Ming Chin, writing for the dissenters, argued that the court’s 2002 holding “serves to protect those privacy interests while still allowing officers to achieve the important purpose of adequately identifying the driver before issuing a citation.”

“If the Fourth Amendment permits the greater intrusion of a custodial arrest and a full search of the person (and perhaps the vehicle), then it should also permit the lesser intrusion of no arrest and a limited search of just a few places within the vehicle,” Chin wrote.

The case is California v. Lopez, Cal., No. S238627, 11/25/19.

(Adds Amicus Project statement in seventh paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Joyce E. Cutler in San Francisco at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at; Nicholas Datlowe at