Opening car door invalidates stop and leads to suppression

Opening the door and entering the vehicle exposes more of the vehicle to view and impermissibly intrudes on the driver’s privacy expectation

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United States v. Ngumezi, 2020 WL 6814674 (9th Cir. 2020)

An officer saw Malik Ngumezi’s car parked at a gas station with Ngumezi in the driver’s seat. The car had no license plates. The officer approached the car from the passenger side because a gas pump blocked the driver side.

According to Ngumezi, the officer opened the passenger door, leaned into the car, and asked him for his license and registration. The officer confirmed he asked for Ngumezi’s license and registration but testified he did not remember whether he opened the door, or whether he instead spoke to Ngumezi through an open window.

Ngumezi had an identification card but not a driver's license; he admitted his license was suspended. A backup officer ran a check and confirmed Ngumezi’s license was suspended and that he had three prior citations for driving with a suspended license.

The department policy required officers to inventory and tow a vehicle when a driver lacks a valid license and has at least one prior citation for driving without a valid license. Conducting the inventory search prior to the tow, the officers found a loaded .45 caliber handgun under Ngumezi’s seat. The officers then ran a background check and discovered Ngumezi was a convicted felon.

The trial court denied Ngumezi’s motion to suppress the firearm and the appellate court reversed. The appellate court held that officers who lack probable cause or any other particularized reasonable belief the driver poses a danger may not open the vehicle door and lean inside. Even though an officer can require vehicle occupants to get out of a vehicle during a traffic stop, opening the door and entering the vehicle exposes more of the vehicle to view and impermissibly intrudes on the driver’s privacy expectation.

Though the evidence was suppressed in this case, the court noted other decisions where officers were justified in opening vehicle doors. For example, dark tinted windows and furtive movement might justify opening a door. A truck that is raised up so that the officer cannot view the driver and occupants might justify opening the door (why not ask first?).

One might wonder about the attenuation doctrine here. Wouldn’t the officer have discovered Ngumezi’s license was suspended in the ordinary course of the traffic stop? And that he had three prior citations for the same offense? Probably so. Nonetheless, the court noted the prosecution didn’t raise that argument.

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