Mr. Patterson has not asserted that Sgt. Ropos administered the LCSO’s written impoundment policy in bad faith or that Sgt. Ropos’s actions were a mere pretext for an evidentiary search.  Thus, there is no basis to conclude that the search of Mr. Patterson’s vehicle was unlawful.

State v. Patterson

2021 – Ohio – 4617

Eleventh District Appellate Court

Lake County, Ohio

December 30, 2021

On Monday October 5, 2020 Lake County Sheriff’s Sergeant Zachary Ropos was situated in his marked patrol car near the intersection of Fairport Nursery Road and Mantle Road with his headlights shining onto the roadway. According to Sgt. Ropos, the area had experienced a high rate of crime, including an influx of stolen vehicles. Specifically, car thieves were stealing temporary tags and placing them in obscure locations on the stolen vehicles.

At about 10:45 p.m., Sgt. Ropos observed Mr. James Patterson drive past in a white Pontiac Grand Prix with no visible rear registration. Sgt. Ropos followed Mr. Patterson’s vehicle and still did not see a registration. Sgt. Ropos initiated a traffic stop, and Mr. Patterson pulled over. Sgt. Ropos approached the vehicle and advised Mr. Patterson of the reason for the stop. Mr. Patterson told Sgt. Ropos that he was the registered owner of the vehicle and that there was a temporary tag in the upper left corner of the rear windshield. Sgt. Ropos looked in that location and finally observed the temporary tag.

Sgt. Ropos ran the vehicle’s registration through central dispatch and asked Mr. Patterson for his driver’s license. Mr. Patterson provided him with his Ohio identification card. While waiting for dispatch to respond, Mr. Patterson informed Sgt. Ropos that he had recently been released from prison. Dispatch advised Sgt. Ropos that Mr. Patterson was the registered vehicle owner and that he had a suspended driver’s status. Sgt. Ropos asked Mr. Patterson to step out of the vehicle and escorted him to the rear of the patrol car to issue him a citation.

The LCSO’s written policies and procedures state that vehicle impoundment is necessary “[W]hen State laws dictate impoundment of vehicles such as driving under the influence laws and driving under suspension law.” Sgt. Ropos determined that it was necessary to tow Mr. Patterson’s vehicle because Mr. Patterson was the sole occupant, he did not have a valid license, and the vehicle was stopped on a traveled roadway. After calling the tow truck, Sgt. Ropos conducted an inventory search of the vehicle and completed a vehicle inventory sheet.

While inside the patrol car, Mr. Patterson communicated with someone via FaceTime. At some point, Mr. Patterson told Sgt. Ropos that someone could retrieve his vehicle. According to Sgt. Ropos, the LCSO will permit another driver to retrieve a vehicle under certain circumstances. However, Sgt. Ropos declined to do so in this instance because the tow truck had already been summoned and because he did not want to prolong the stop to wait for two vehicle operators to arrive (i.e., one to arrive to the scene and another to remove Mr. Patterson’s vehicle).  Law enforcement is directed by case law not to prolong a stop beyond what is reasonable.  If a citizen chooses to prolong the stop that should not be held to be unreasonable.  Sgt. Ropos decision not to wait for a facetiming valid driver will be evaluated under Lessons Learned.

During his inventory search of the vehicle, Sgt. Ropos found drugs inside a large plastic bag in the driver’s side door compartment. The drugs wee later determined to be methamphetamine.

Mr. Patterson filed a Motion to Suppress, based in part on Sgt. Ropos refusal to await a licensed driver to meander to the scene of the traffic stop.  The motion was denied and he plead no contest. Mr. Patterson was found guilty and sentenced to three to four- and one-half years in prison for Aggravated Possession of Drugs.  He filed a timely appeal, and the Eleventh District Appellate Court upheld his conviction.

The court held “Mr. Patterson has not asserted that Sgt. Ropos administered the LCSO’s written impoundment policy in bad faith or that Sgt. Ropos’s actions were a mere pretext for an evidentiary search.  Thus, there is no basis to conclude that the search of Mr. Patterson’s vehicle was unlawful.”.

This case was issued by the Eleventh District Appellate Court and is binding in the following Ohio Counties: Ashtabula, Geauga, Lake, Portage and Trumbull.

Information for this article was obtained from State v. Patterson, 2021 – Ohio – 4617.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Sgt. Ropos followed his department policy on vehicle impoundment which led to the conviction of Mr. Patterson. The sergeant should be highly commended for following his agency’s policy and should be a guide for all officers to mirror his professional behavior.
  2. What could lead law enforcement to not only lose criminal cases but also be successfully sued for Fourth Amendment violations is when under similar fact patterns, the officer/deputy conducts an inventory of the vehicle, finds no contraband and then cuts a break to the violator or vehicle owner and releases the vehicle after the inventory. Courts have and will continue to view this conduct to be fishing expeditions for contraband.  I strongly encourage law enforcement to follow the lead of Sgt. Ropos.  As a young officer there were a few times I did release the vehicle to the owner who had arrived at scene after I conducted the vehicle inventory.  Even though my motive was not nefarious, it most certainly could have been viewed as such if litigated.
  3. Law enforcement may choose not to impound a vehicle, if the agency’s policy so permits. If an officer/deputy makes this decision then the vehicle inventory should not be completed for the reasons stated above.
  4. Patterson is a prime example that recidivist felons and no operator’s license go together like a taser and a cartridge.
  5. For more information on impounding of vehicles see Officer Frank Followed Department Policy … But Should You?, Do Officers Have a Legal Duty to Explain the Inventory Policy to a Fentanyl Dealer [or anyone else] while in the Middle of an Intersection at a Crash Scene?, and Andy said he didn’t ‘Mess’ with Marijuana but did he ‘Mess’ with Meth?.

Does your agency train on the the vehicle impounds?

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and Objectively Reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.