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State v. Villela

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

October 17, 2019

JOEL A. VILLELA, Respondent.

          Gonzalez, J.

         Our state constitution protects our right to privacy. CONST, art. I, § 7. Under our constitution, the State and its agents may not disturb our "private affairs . . . without authority of law." Id. "Authority of law" generally means a warrant issued by a neutral magistrate or a longstanding exception to the warrant requirement.

         We are asked today whether the legislature has created "authority of law," as understood in our constitution, by passing RCW 46.55.360. Laws OF 2011, ch. 167, § 3. Under RCW 46.55.360, officers are required to impound a vehicle any time they arrest its driver for driving under the influence. This impound is mandatory, regardless of whether the vehicle is safely off the roadway or whether another person is able to safely drive it away. The trial court below found that RCW 46.55.360 violates our constitution because it requires what the constitution allows only under limited circumstances. We agree. Our constitution cannot be amended by statute, and while the legislature can give more protection to constitutional rights through legislation, it cannot use legislation to take that protection away. Accordingly, we affirm.


         Late one night in January 2018, Sergeant Paul Snyder stopped a jeep driven by Joel Villela for speeding. Sergeant Snyder smelled alcohol on Villela's breath and, after Villela declined a roadside field sobriety test, arrested him on suspicion of driving while under the influence of intoxicants (DUI). Sergeant Snyder also impounded Villela's jeep under RCW 46.55.360. Following the dictates of RCW 46.55.360, Sergeant Snyder did not consider whether there was a reasonable alternative to impounding Villela's jeep, such as releasing it to one of Villela's two passengers.

         After the jeep was impounded, Sergeant Snyder did an inventory search of its contents. Sergeant Snyder found sandwich bags, digital scales, black cloth, pipes, and $340 in cash, all of which he believed was associated with drug dealing. A search incident to arrest discovered cocaine on Villela himself. Villela was charged with DUI and possession with intent to deliver controlled substances.

         Villela moved to suppress the fruits of the inventory search on the grounds that the mandatory impound of his jeep (which was the only grounds for the search) was not a lawful seizure under article I, section 7.[1] At the hearing, the trial judge noted that this issue had come up several times before in the Grant County Superior Court, including in his own courtroom. Villela offered evidence that the costs associated with even a brief vehicle impound can easily exceed $1, 000 and may result in the loss of the vehicle. The trial judge granted the suppression motion, concluding:

[W]hile a state may impose more restrictive standards than the constitution requires, it may not, as the Washington legislature did when it enacted RCW 46.55.360, expand the scope of police authority to [search] and seize under the constitution. See Nathanson v. United States, 290 U.S. 41, [54 S.Ct. 11, 78 L.Ed. 159] (1933). That statute, therefore, is unconstitutional.

         Clerk's Papers at 50.

         The parties agreed that there was good cause for immediate review. RAP 2.4, 2.3(b)(4). Thus, there has been no trial yet. Our commissioner granted the State's motion for direct review. The Washington State Patrol submitted an amicus brief supporting the State. The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, the Washington Defender Association, the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Institute for Justice filed a joint amicus brief supporting Villela.


         "The right to be free from searches by government agents is deeply rooted in our nation's history and law, and it is enshrined in our state and national constitutions." State v. Day, 161 Wn.2d 889, 893, 168 P.3d 1265 (2007) (citing U.S. Const, amend. IV; Const, art. I, § 7). "Generally, officers of the State must obtain a warrant before intruding into the private affairs of others, and we presume that warrantless searches violate both constitutions." Id. However, "[t]hat presumption can be rebutted if the State shows a search fell within certain 'narrowly and jealousy drawn [exceptions] to the warrant requirement.'" Id. at 893-94 (second alteration in original) (quoting State v. Stroud, 106 Wn.2d 144, 147, 720 P.2d 436 (1986), overruled in part by State v. Valdez, 167 Wn.2d 761, 224 P.3d 751 (2009)).

         Villela challenges the constitutionality of the mandatory seizure statute, RCW 46.55.360. "'We presume statutes are constitutional and review challenges to them de novo.'" State v. Lanciloti, 165 Wn.2d 661, 667, 201 P.3d 323 (2009) (quoting City of Seattle v. Ludvigsen, 162 Wn.2d 660, 668, 174 P.3d 43 (2007)). As the challenger, Villela bears the burden of establishing that the statutorily mandated seizure of his vehicle violates our constitution. Id. (citing Heinsma v. City of Vancouver, 144 Wn.2d 556, 561, 29 P.3d 709 (2001)).

         RCW 46.55.350-.360, also known as "Hailey's Law," was in part a response to a tragic car accident. Laws of 2011, ch. 167, ...

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