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State Supreme Court Affirms Warrantless Search of Car. But Is Its Reasoning Bogus?

Posted by Kevin Trombold DUI Defense Attorney | May 05, 2016 | 0 Comments

It's reasonable to think that Washington residents will sleep better knowing that a drive-by shooter is now behind bars. Nevertheless, the way the case was handled calls into question whether or not the search that turned up the suspect's gun was in fact “reasonable” under the law.

In 2009, Chad Duncan reportedly drove past a Yakima home and fired bullets at it. One of these bullets grazed the head of an occupant. Witnesses called 911 and identified the car as white in color. Shortly thereafter, Duncan's white vehicle was pulled over and officers ordered all three occupants out of the car and handcuffed.

Without a warrant to search the vehicle, police opened the doors of the car. They found shell casings on the floor and a gun between the passenger seat and the door. Duncan was arrested on six counts of first degree assault; and even though his attorneys challenged the legality of the search, their motion to suppress the gun evidence was denied and Duncan was convicted.

Duncan appealed, and the case eventually wound up in the Washington Supreme Court. In the court's ruling, the justices noted one officer's testimony that:

“he saw shell casings and decided to search the car in order ‘to make sure we weren't going to [be] towing a car with a handgun inside that could possibly discharge.'”

According to the ruling, the trial judge:

“… also found the sweep of the car and the seizure of the gun were lawful because of the danger posed by an unsecured weapon in a car as it is being towed.”

Because of this exception, the Supreme Court ruled that the search was admissible and that Duncan's conviction was affirmed.

But one question remains unanswered: was there really a threat of the firearm discharging by itself while the vehicle was being towed?

No specific case of this type of occurrence was cited in the Supreme Court ruling; the police and judges seemed to simply accept this argument on its face. However, weapons experts note that all handguns manufactured in recent years are certified as “drop safe,” meaning that they have passed “drop tests” and will not go off by themselves. As one weapons consultant adds:

“[The] odds of a gun firing without being dropped are a statistical zero.”

The vast majority of unintentional weapon discharges involve someone placing their finger on the trigger (accidentally or purposely) – which would not have happened in an empty towed vehicle. But if most or all of your knowledge of firearms consists of what you watch on TV or in the movies, then you might actually think that guns frequently “go off” by themselves.

Again, it's not unlikely that Duncan's conviction would have been upheld on other grounds. But the laws are intended to be applied to every Washington resident – even if they are accused of a drive-by shooting – so this high court ruling based on a false premise should be a bit disconcerting to people who advocate justice and equality under the law.

About the Author

Kevin Trombold DUI Defense Attorney

Highly rated by former clients, who praise his warm, knowledgeable courtside manner and his fierce determination to reduce or eliminate charges. An accomplished speaker, author, and leader in DUI defense statewide Kevin is well respected by judges, prosecutors, and other attorneys across the State of Washington for his expertise, integrity, and knowledge in the complicated forensic science area of impaired driving allegations.

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