7/26/2018Oregon Court Rejects Car Seizure Over Insurance Card
Oregon police must make some effort to verify motorist insurance before seizing a car under a new Oregon Court of Appeals ruling.
A police officer made a mistake by hauling away a woman's car without bothering to check whether the vehicle was properly insured. The Oregon Court of Appeals last week threw out the evidence against Candi Lee Balabon because her 2004 Mazda RX8 had been unlawfully searched.
Portland Police Officers Britt and Mawdsley ordered Balabon to pull over near Powell Boulevard after allegedly observing a traffic violation. The encounter opened with the standard request for license and registration. Balabon produced a valid license and began rummaging through her purse to find the proof of insurance. She had recently switched to Nationwide, so all she had was a card with her name and account number and a toll-free number to call to verify the information.
"You can look it up, I have insurance," Balabon told Officer Britt.
They were not interested in making the effort.
"It can be hearsay in the courtroom," Officer Britt explained during the trial. "And also, it takes a substantial amount of time sometimes to get a hold of insurance companies. Sometimes they're not open in the middle of the night."
That decision allowed the officer to impound the RX8, which in turn allowed the officer to conduct an inventory search of the car that recovered a supply of methamphetamine. The sole question before the appellate court was whether the officers had probable cause to believe that Balabon was driving uninsured.
"Although that card did not satisfy the requirements of Oregon Revised Statutes 806.011, in that it did not include a description of the vehicle or an expiration date, nothing about the card indicated that it was fraudulent," Judge Bronson James wrote for the court. "Defendant also provided the officers with a valid insurance card for a different vehicle and an expired card for another vehicle. Finally, defendant repeatedly invited the officers to contact her insurance carrier and insisted that the insurance carrier would verify that she was insured.... Viewed in its totality, this information does not rise to the level of probable cause -- i.e., more likely than not -- that defendant was driving uninsured, a violation of ORS 806.010."
Under Oregon law, failure to produce proof of insurance is "reasonable grounds" to believe a driver is driving without insurance. In legal terms, reasonable grounds is a lower standard than probable cause, but the Oregon Constitution states that the government may not seize property without probable cause.
"The state cannot ground an administrative seizure on a policy that requires the towing of a vehicle when the driver is merely cited for driving uninsured, unless that citation is based on probable cause," Judge James wrote. "Here, having previously concluded, as did the trial court, that the officers did not have objective probable cause to believe that defendant was driving uninsured, we also conclude that the officers could not lawfully seize defendant's vehicle."
A copy of the ruling is available in an 80k PDF file at the source link below.