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People v. Piper

OPINION FILED OCTOBER 30, 1981.

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

RICHARD T. PIPER, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Du Page County; the Hon. ROBERT COX, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE LINDBERG DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

The question raised by this appeal is whether opening the door of a vehicle by police to examine the vehicle identification number on the door post in the course of a routine accident investigation without asking permission of the driver constitutes an illegal search.

Defendant was charged by complaint in the Circuit Court of Du Page County with three offenses arising from the discovery by police of weapons in his truck during the course of a routine traffic accident investigation: (1) unlawful use of weapons in that he knowingly carried a loaded firearm in his vehicle (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 38, par. 24-1(a)(10)); (2) unlawful use of weapons in that he knowingly possessed a bludgeon (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 38, par. 24-1(a)(1)); and (3) possession of a firearm without the requisite firearm owners identification card (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 38, par. 83-2). After a hearing, defendant's motion to suppress the weapons evidence as the product of an illegal search was granted by the trial court. The State appeals. Defendant filed an appearance in this court, but did not submit a brief.

Defendant Piper was involved in a traffic accident at the intersection of Gary Mill Road and Roosevelt Road in West Chicago. Defendant hailed a passing squad car which stopped to investigate the accident. Both of the vehicles involved in the accident were apparently parked at the side of the road, and the squad car pulled up behind the second vehicle.

Two deputy sheriffs, Prunty and Horan, were in their squad car. Defendant, his wife and the driver of the second vehicle were summoned to the squad car where they answered routine questions addressed to them by Deputy Prunty concerning the accident. During this time, Deputy Horan was outside the police car recording the license plate numbers, the make and model of the vehicles and the vehicle identification numbers (VIN) of the vehicles involved in the accident.

Approaching defendant's truck, Deputy Horan looked through the windshield in an effort to find the VIN on the dashboard. Unable to locate the number, and without asking defendant, he proceeded to open the door and found the VIN on the door post. As Officer Horan copied the VIN he observed a revolver in a holster draped over the side and secured to the back of the seat which was not visible from outside the truck. After unloading the weapon, Horan looked under the front seat and located a knife, and several clubs.

At a preliminary hearing, Piper moved to suppress the weapons seized as a result of Deputy Horan's search of his vehicle. The trial court granted the motion finding that defendant had a right of privacy within the cab of his vehicle; that the cab could be searched pursuant to a search warrant or if the driver of the vehicle is unable to produce any identification for the vehicle; and that because the deputy sheriff in this case did not request the information prior to searching the vehicle, his opening of the truck's door constituted an illegal search. The trial court granted defendant's motion to suppress and we affirm.

The State would justify the investigation which yielded the weapons on two alternative grounds: first, that opening the door of a vehicle in the course of a routine traffic accident to find the VIN is not a "search" within the protective scope of the fourth amendment to the United States Constitution; and second, if this be deemed a search, it is not constitutionally unreasonable.

• 1 In City of Decatur v. Kushmer (1969), 43 Ill.2d 334, 338, 253 N.E.2d 425, 428, our supreme court observed:

"A search implies a prying into hidden places for that which is concealed, and it is not a search to observe that which is open to view. A search implies an invasion and quest with some sort of force either actual or constructive. [Citations.]" Accord, People v. Crowder (1981), 99 Ill. App.3d 500.

In People v. Wolf (1975), 60 Ill.2d 230, 326 N.E.2d 766, the supreme court noted that the courts> of some jurisdictions have held that examining a VIN by opening the car door or lifting the hood is not a search within the scope of fourth amendment protection where there is a legitimate reason for doing so. However, the court in Wolf stopped short of adopting this approach for Illinois.

The argument favoring this view was fully expounded in United States v. Polk (5th Cir. 1970), 433 F.2d 644, 647-48:

"The rationale * * * is that an automobile owner can have no reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to the car's VIN. * * *

Vehicle identification numbers are put on automobiles by the manufacturers to aid in identifying the vehicles. There are so many similar cars that individual vehicles can be identified only through the use of such individual numbering. State laws contain many requirements for disclosing and recording such VIN's, showing a generally accepted mode of ...


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