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Police can’t look under pickup’s tonneau cover

Benchmarks is always on the lookout for those novel search and seizure cases that help point the way for criminal defense attorneys. Last week, the Oregon Court of Appeals reached the somewhat counterintuitive conclusion that police can’t treat the covered bed of a pickup truck the same as the trunk of a car.

The beneficiary of that decision is Jay Lee Hanna. A Eugene, Ore., police officer investigating property crimes saw Hanna place suspected stolen items in the back of his Dodge pickup truck.

Interest piqued, the officer waited for Hanna to commit a traffic offense before initiating a stop. The officer place Hanna under arrest after determining that he was driving without a valid license and that he hadn’t kept up with his sex offender reporting requirements.

With its driver in handcuffs, police decided to tow and impound Hanna’s pickup truck. That led officers to conduct an inventory search of the vehicle pursuant to the Eugene Police Department’s policy.

The officers struck gold when they searched the cab of the truck, finding a glass pipe with a white residue that turned out to be methamphetamine. The inventory search of the cab complete, police turned their attention to the bed of the truck.

The bed of Hanna’s pickup truck was covered with a tonneau cover. You’ve seen those. They’ve become a favorite of the more stylish pickup truck owners.

A tonneau cover often looks like a black leather tarp covering the entire bed of the pickup. In fact, they’re typically made of hard plastic, fiberglass, or metal. Like a trunk, a tonneau cover can be locked to secure items in the rear of the vehicle.

Police found that Hanna’s cover was locked, but that wasn’t a problem because they had found the keys to the cover when they searched the cab.

Unlocking the cover, police discovered a shotgun in the pickup’s bed. This was more bad news for Hanna because he was a convicted felon who wasn’t supposed to have a firearm.

A state court later denied Hanna’s motion to suppress and he was convicted of possession of methamphetamine and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Hanna’s strongest argument on appeal was that police had conducted an unlawful inventory search when they unlocked the tonneau cover and searched the bed of his pickup.

Eugene Police Department’s inventory search policy doesn’t specifically address pickup trucks with tonneau covers, but the state was confident that the inventory search of Hanna’s truck bed fell within the guideline authorizing the search of a vehicle’s “trunk and any external vehicle container(s) attached to the vehicle (e.g., car-top carrier) if you can open them without damaging the vehicle or the container.”

Wednesday, the Oregon Court of Appeals concluded that the search of Hanna’s pickup bed exceeded the scope of the police department’s inventory search policy.

First, the court concluded that the pickup’s bed, as enclosed by the pickup’s walls and the locked tonneau cover, was not a “trunk” under the department’s policy:

To be sure, the combination of the bed of a pickup and a tonneau cover can create a space that performs the same function as a trunk, just as a backpack or fanny pack can perform the same function as, for example, a briefcase or a purse. But just as a fanny pack is not a purse, neither is a pickup bed covered with a tonneau cover a trunk. In that regard, we emphasize that the operative provision of the inventory policy at issue here is phrased precisely, in terms of a specific referent, “trunk,” rather than more broadly and functionally – e.g., “a trunk or any other area of a motor vehicle designed or created to contain items of personal property.”

Further, the court concluded that the search was not authorized under language authorizing the search of external vehicle containers. The court said: 

Reference to the dictionary would be gratuitous because, even granting that the combination of the tonneau cover and the bed and walls of the pickup created a “container,” that “container” was not “external” or “attached” to the vehicle. Rather, parts of the vehicle itself were integral components of the “container”; that is, without the vehicle, there could be no “container.” Nor is the tonneau cover, which is “attached to the vehicle,” itself a “container” any more than the lid to a travel coffee mug is a container. Rather, the cover by itself is just that – a cover.

(State v. Hanna)

With the shotgun suppressed, the court proceeded to reverse Hanna’s conviction for felon in possession of a firearm.

– Pat Murphy


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