Ohio Clarifies: Law Enforcement Cannot Conduct Unjustified Search of Vehicle Subsequent to a Recent Occupant’s Arrest   

Author: Maxel Moreland, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

Under the Fourth Amendment, absent an impartial and neutral judge or magistrate, warrantless searches are unconstitutional, subject to only a few exceptions.[1] Leak examined two such exceptions—a search incident to a lawful arrest and inventory searches done pursuant to law enforcement’s community-caretaking function.[2] The Ohio Supreme Court held that these exceptions did not justify the search of a vehicle, subsequent to an arrest, when the arrestee had been a mere occupant of the vehicle.[3]  The Supreme Court’s decision was right and ensures the necessary Fourth Amendment protections.

The Arrest and Search of Quayshaun Leak

Immediately after exiting a lawfully parked vehicle as a passenger, Quayshaun Leak was arrested pursuant to an arrest warrant for domestic violence. Neither of the car’s other occupants, however, had a warrant outstanding for their arrest.[5] After arresting Leak and placing him in the back of the patrol car, the officer requested that the car’s driver and other passenger exit the car so that the officer could conduct an inventory search and tow the car.[6] During the search, the officer discovered a gun.[7] Leak admitted to owning the gun for protection.[8]

Leak filed a motion to suppress the gun as evidence, claiming that the inventory search violated his Fourth Amendment rights.[9] The officer claimed that his search was permissible because he believed that he had arrested the owner of the car and that he was looking for evidence relating to Leak’s domestic violence charge.[10] Leak contended that an officer cannot commit a warrantless search of a vehicle merely because the arrestee was a recent occupant of said vehicle.[11]

Why the “Searches Incident to Lawful Arrest” Exception Does Not Apply

A search incident to an arrest is an exception permitting warrantless searches based on two rationales: to protect law enforcement officers and to prevent the destruction of evidence.[12] The ability of law enforcement to conduct warrantless vehicle searches incident to a recent occupant’s arrest was curbed in Arizona v. Gant.[13] Gant clarified that law enforcement can perform a vehicle search incident to arrest, “only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search.”[14]

When an arrestee is no longer within reaching distance of the vehicle, searches done without a warrant are considered unreasonable.[15] To make this determination, the Court balanced the interests of law enforcement against the privacy interest of an arrestee.[16] In situations where the arrestee is unable to reach the passenger compartment of a vehicle, the interests of the arrestee outweigh law enforcement’s, as it is unreasonable to assume that the officers are in danger or that evidence will likely be destroyed. Permitting law enforcement to conduct warrantless searches of vehicles, absent weighty governmental interests, is contrary to the central purpose of the Fourth Amendment.[17]

In Leak, the arrestee could not have reached back into the passenger compartment of the vehicle.[18] Additionally, the arresting officer was unaware of the details of the domestic violence incident and could not articulate why he believed the vehicle was related to the arrestee’s offense.[19] The Ohio Supreme Court correctly determined that this search incident to an arrest fails the standard set forth in Gant.[20] In this instance, the arrestee was not the only person with privacy concerns at stake; Leak was the passenger of a car with two other occupants.[21] The ability for law enforcement to search the vehicle of an individual who was merely associated with a recent arrestee would present a grave threat to that individual’s privacy. In Leak, permitting a vehicle search incident to an arrest would improperly erode the other occupant’s Fourth Amendment protections. Leak’s holding—that an officer must establish a reasonable connection between the arrestee’s offense and the vehicle the arrestee had recently exited before conducting a search—ensures that individual privacy rights for Ohioans will not disappear due to mere association with an arrestee.[22]

Law Enforcement’s Community-Caretaking Function: Inventory Searches Not Applicable

Inventory searches are conducted pursuant to law enforcement’s community-caretaking function and allow officers to search vehicles taken into police custody.[23] It is well established that the police have the authority to seize vehicles that impede traffic or inconvenience the public.[24] The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches; when police properly seize a vehicle, conducting a search of the vehicle is reasonable.[25]

The Ohio Supreme Court has previously determined that conducting an inventory search of a seized vehicle is permissible so long as the search is done pursuant to standard police practices and is not merely a pretext for an evidentiary search.[26] In Kavanagh, the officer seized the defendant’s vehicle because the vehicle could neither remain parked on the side of the highway nor legally driven by the lone occupant.[27] While the defendant in Kavanagh could have called a tow truck himself, the reasonableness of government actions is not dependent upon less intrusive means.[28] However, this holding did not establish that law enforcement may impound vehicles without a justification. The seizure of a vehicle must still be reasonable based on each case’s own facts.[29]

The seizure in Leak was unreasonable; the officer did not seize the vehicle pursuant to any standard police practice. The officer claimed that the decision to seize the vehicle was based on the officer’s assumption that the owner of the car had just been arrested.[30] While the Court lists numerous police justifications for seizing a vehicle, the mere arrest of its potential owner is not one of them.[31] Kavanagh also requires the Court to determine whether the officer seized the vehicle as a pretext to an evidentiary search.[32] In this case, the officer stated that he was not conducting a search pursuant to the community-caretaking function, but instead was attempting to discover evidence relating to the arrestee’s domestic-violence charges.[33]        

Disallowing the officer from conducting a warrantless search without reasonable justification is precisely the purpose of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. Law enforcement cannot simply search an individual’s vehicle to fish for evidence. Permitting law enforcement to conduct inventory searches absent a reasonable governmental interest would eliminate an individual’s Fourth Amendment privacy protections. The Ohio Supreme Court’s ruling to disallow the admission of evidence, discovered during an inventory search subsequent to an unjustified impoundment, promotes Ohioans protection from impermissible government searches.

Victory for the Right to Privacy and Reasonableness

The touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness, and reasonableness is determined by the totality of the circumstances.[34] An examination of the totality of the circumstances means that bright line rules are often ineffective at determining the reasonableness of a search or seizure.[35]

 In Leak, the arresting officer had a severely deficient knowledge of the totality of the circumstances leading up to the arrest of Quayshaun Leak. The officer testified that he had no knowledge pertaining to the location of the incident, whether the incident was a misdemeanor or felony, or if Leak owned the car in which was traveling.[36] To vest an officer with the discretion to determine the reasonableness of a search with little knowledge of the alleged crime committed would strike a major blow to Fourth Amendment protections. The Court was right in asserting that the officer could not have determined whether a search was reasonable given the totality of the circumstances.

Bright line rules are ineffective at determining when a search is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. However, bright line rules are appropriate to set a floor that declares certain search practices as unreasonable. The Ohio Supreme Court’s ultimate holding, that “the arrest of a recent occupant of a lawfully parked vehicle does not, by itself, establish reasonableness to justify a warrantless search of the vehicle,” established that the officer’s lone justification in Leak was unreasonable.[37]

While the Ohio Supreme Court did not declare its holding in Leak to be a bright line rule, it effectively reads as one. In the future, rather than attempt to say what is reasonable, lower courts should attempt to make bright line rules that clearly state what police practices always result in unreasonable searches. It may seem more of an arduous task for courts to create numerous doctrines of unreasonable law enforcement practices, but the results would at least provide courts with some clear and manageable rules to follow.


Leak protects Ohioans from governmental searches of their vehicles subsequent to an arrestee’s arrest for being a mere occupant of said vehicle. This ensures that law enforcement needs to provide additional justification before conducting a search or impounding a vehicle. Ending law enforcement’s blanket authority to search an arrestee’s legally parked vehicle promotes the protections of the Fourth Amendment.

[1] See Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967).

[2] State v. Leak, 2016 Ohio 154,  ¶15.

[3] Id. at ¶ 38.

[4] Id. at ¶ 1-3.

[5] Id. at ¶6.

[6] Id. at ¶ 5-6.

[7] Id. at ¶ 6.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at ¶7.

[10] Id. The officer in this case did not know where the domestic violence occurred and did not have the warrant on him when searching the vehicle. The officer did not know the details of the domestic violence case. The officer only had knowledge of the approximate location of Leak, a description of Leak, and the car Leak was traveling in.

[11] Id. at ¶ 11.

[12] Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, 337-38 (2009).

[13] Id. at 351.

[14] Gant, 556 U.S. at 343.

[15] Id. at 351.

[16] Id. at 344.

[17] Id. at 345.

[18] Leak at ¶17.

[19] Id. at ¶18.

[20] Id. at ¶19.

[21] Id. at ¶6.

[22] Id. at ¶18.

[23] South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 368 (1976).

[24] Id. at 369

[25] Id. at 371.

[26] Blue Ash v. Kavanagh, 2007-Ohio-1103, ¶ 11, 113 Ohio St. 3d 67, 69, 862 N.E.2d 810, 812.

[27] Id. at ¶ 3.

[28] Id. at ¶ 18.

[29] Opperman, 428 U.S. at 373.

[30] Leak at ¶ 31.

[31] Id. at ¶ 25.

[32] Kavanagh, 113 Ohio St.3d 67, 2007-Ohio-1103, 862 N.E.2d 810, at ¶ 11.

[33] Leak at ¶ 33.

[34] Ohio v. Robinette, 519 U.S. 33, 39 (1996).

[35] Id.

[36] Leak at ¶ 4.

[37] Id. at ¶ 38.

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