Florida v. Meyers


No. 83-1279 Argued: --- Decided: April 23, 1984

Respondent was charged with sexual battery. At the time of his arrest, police officers searched his automobile and seized several items. The vehicle was then towed to Sunny's Wrecker, where it was impounded in a locked, secure area. Approximately eight hours later, a police officer went to the compound and, without obtaining a warrant, searched the car for a second time. Additional evidence was seized. At the subsequent trial, the court denied respondent's motion to suppress the evidence seized during the second search, and respondent was convicted.

On appeal, the Florida District Court of Appeal for the Fourth District reversed the conviction, holding that, even [p381] though respondent conceded that the initial search of the automobile was valid, the second search violated the Fourth Amendment. 432 So.2d 97 (1983). The court concluded that Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42 (1970), in which this Court held that police officers who have probable cause to believe there is contraband inside an automobile that has been stopped on the road may search it without obtaining a warrant, was distinguishable, stating that "in this case, the element of mobility was removed because [respondent's] vehicle had been impounded." 432 So.2d at 99. The Florida Supreme Court denied the State's petition for discretionary review, and the State filed the present petition for certiorari. We reverse. [*] [p382]

The District Court of Appeal either misunderstood or ignored our prior rulings with respect to the constitutionality of the warrantless search of an impounded automobile. In Michigan v. Thomas, 458 U.S. 259 (1982), we upheld a warrantless search of an automobile even though the automobile was in police custody and even though a prior inventory search had already been made. That ruling controls the disposition of this case. In Thomas, we expressly rejected the argument accepted by the District Court of Appeal in the present case, noting that the search upheld in Chambers was conducted "after [the automobile was] impounded and [was] in police custody" and emphasizing that "the justification to conduct such a warrantless search does not vanish once the car has been immobilized." 458 U.S. at 261. The District Court of Appeal's ruling that the subsequent search in this case was invalid because the car had been impounded is clearly inconsistent with Thomas and Chambers. The petition for certiorari is therefore granted, the judgment of the [p383] District Court of Appeal is reversed, and the case is remanded to that court for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

* Even though the District Court of Appeal remanded the case for a new trial, its decision on the federal constitutional issue is reviewable at this time because, if the State prevails at the trial, the issue will be mooted, and if the State loses, governing state law, Fla.Stat. § 924.07 (1981); State v. Brown, 330 So.2d 535, 536 (Fla.App.1976), will prohibit it from presenting the federal claim for review. In such circumstances, we have consistently held that "the decision below constitute[s] a final judgment under 28 U.S.C. § 1257(3)." California v. Stewart, decided with Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 497, 498, n. 71 (1966). See South Dakota v. Neville, 459 U.S. 553, 558, n. 6 (1983); North Dakota Pharmacy Board v. Snyder's Stores, 414 U.S. 156, 159-164 (1973). See also Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469, 481 (1975).

Respondent contends that we should not review the issue raised by petitioner because

the appellate court reversed [respondent's] conviction on two independent grounds, one of which (restricted cross-examination) petitioner does not contest.

Brief in Opposition 2. To the extent that this is an argument that the lower court's judgment is unreviewable because it rests on adequate and independent state grounds, we reject it. First, it is highly questionable whether the District Court of Appeal would have reversed the conviction had it not reversed the trial court's ruling on the suppression motion. The court did state that respondent's cross-examination of the victim had been unduly restricted by the trial court. However, the court's short discussion of this issue was introduced by the observation that, "[s]ince the case must be remanded for a new trial, we briefly mention another appellate point." 432 So.2d at 99. This is hardly a clear indication that the cross-examination ruling provided an independent and adequate basis for reversal of the conviction. See Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 1040-1041 (1983).

Moreover, even if the cross-examination ruling did provide an independent state ground for reversal, we would still be empowered to review the constitutional issue raised by petitioner. The reason we cannot review a state court judgment resting on adequate and independent state grounds is that

[w]e are not permitted to render an advisory opinion, and if the same judgment would be rendered by the state court after we corrected its views of federal laws, our review could amount to nothing more than an advisory opinion.

Herb v. Pitcairn, 324 U.S. 117, 126 (1945). In the present case, there is no possibility that our opinion will be merely advisory. Even if the District Court of Appeal were to order a new trial solely on the basis of its cross-examination ruling, the admissibility of critical evidence at that trial hinges on the constitutional issue presented for review by petitioner. Thus, our resolution of that issue will affect the proceedings below regardless of how the District Court of Appeal rules on remand. In such circumstances there is no jurisdictional reason why we cannot address the issue presented to us.