The Warrantless Seizure of an Automobile from Another’s Private Property
In order for the so-called “automobile exception” to the search warrant requirement to apply, it must be found that there is both probable cause to seize the vehicle at issue and exigent circumstances making it impractical to obtain a search warrant. A car sitting unattended on someone’s private property does not presumptively provide the necessary exigent circumstances allowing for its warrantless seizure despite having probable cause to believe it contains evidence of a crime.
Defendant Donald Rorabaugh spent some time during the evening of May 23, 2015, at the 108 Sports Lounge (aka, the “108 Bar”) in the town of Riverbank, San Joaquin County. While there, an acquaintance introduced defendant to a man named Joseph Denner, who was soon to become the co-defendant in this case. Edward Magana also frequented the 108 Bar, occasionally (on prior occasions) sharing a drink with defendant. Magana was known to all in the area, having no fixed address and crashing at night where he could. He was known to commonly carry his meager belongings in a black backpack. Defendant lived with his father in Riverbank. He drove a 1966 Oldsmobile Cutlass which was “very loud,” due to a faulty engine and muffler. Defendant commonly kept his car on the property of a friend (David Christensen), some three minutes from defendant’s home, where he would do mechanical work on it. Back to the night of May 23rd/24th, defendant left the 108 Bar at about 1:45 a.m., hitching a ride home from friends. These friends later testified that when they dropped him off at his home, he met a man carrying a black backpack. Denner left the bar shortly after defendant. Defendant’s father heard defendant being dropped off at around 2:30 a.m., saw him enter their garage where he normally slept, and then heard his car leaving several hour later. At some time after 2:30 a.m., a couple who lived on a nearby rural piece of property were woken up by their dogs barking. The wife let the dogs out when she heard a vehicle. The dogs continued to bark despite the car’s engine stopping. Fifteen minutes later, she heard the car start up again and “peel out.” Later that morning, the wife found a dead body in an irrigation canal that bordered their property. The body was soon determined to be that of Edward Magana. An autopsy later found that Magana had suffered a number of physical injuries to his body and head, any one of which could have been the cause of death. The Court’s written decision did not describe what additional evidence might have been found connecting defendant and Denner to Magana’s murder, simply noting that the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s officers obtained search warrants on May 28th for both of their homes. The warrants listed among the items to be seized and searched “unknown vehicles.” Upon executing the warrant at defendant’s home (during which he was arrested), it was discovered that his Cutlass was currently at David Christensen’s ranch. The officers therefore went directly from defendant’s home to the ranch where his car was in fact found sitting in a field some 200 yards from Christensen’s house. Seizing the car, they towed it to the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s office in Modesto where it was stored until another search warrant could be obtained. When searched, blood was found in the trunk of the car that DNA later matched to Magana. A DNA swab from the steering wheel matched defendant’s DNA. Denner was also identified as a “major contributor” to DNA on a passenger door handle. Both defendant and Denner were charged in state court with Magana’s murder. Pretrial, defendant’s motion to suppress the DNA evidence found in his Cutlass was denied. Both defendants testified at trial, with defendant denying any involvement in the murder. Denner (who is not a party to this appeal) testified that defendant committed the murder and forced him to help dispose of Magana’s body. Defendant was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison. (Magana was also convicted, but of second degree murder.) Defendant appealed.