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Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 1, California.

The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Guy PERCY, Jr., Defendant and Respondent.

Cr. 35327.

Decided: August 20, 1980

John K. Van De Kamp, Dist. Atty., Donald J. Kaplan and George M. Palmer, Deputy Dist. Attys., for plaintiff and appellant. Wilbur F. Littlefield, Public Defender, Dennis A. Fischer, Rita H. Harris and Norma Mitchell, Deputy Public Defenders, for defendant and respondent.

The District Attorney of Los Angeles County appeals the dismissal of charges of receiving stolen property (Pen. Code, § 496) and grand theft auto (Pen. Code, § 487.3) made against defendant Guy Percy, Jr., after his motion to suppress certain physical evidence obtained in the search of his business premises was granted (Pen. Code, § 1538.5).


Pursuant to stipulation the motion to suppress was determined on the basis of evidence presented at the preliminary hearing.1 That evidence discloses that William Acker reported to the police on March 23, 1978, the theft of his 1976 Chrysler Cordoba, two-door, grey with black trim and a sun roof, license number 249 NXI. In addition, Earl Newkirk, owner of California Funding Corporation which purchases conditional sales contracts on automobiles, reported the theft on the morning of April 22, 1977, of a white 1973 Chevrolet Caprice, license number 955 HXN, that had been repossessed on March 28, 1977.

Jack Boggio, a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff who is qualified as an expert in the field of auto theft, testified that on April 7, 1978, he and Detective Don Smith went to the J & L Garage on South Hoover Avenue in Los Angeles County. There he contacted defendant Percy, owner of the automobile dismantling business at that location. The deputy identified himself and told defendant Percy that he was there to make an inspection pursuant to Vehicle Code section 2805. He did not have a search warrant for the premises and he did not ask defendant for permission to search the premises.

Deputy Boggio entered the garage, checked on many cars and parts of cars he found there and seized, among other things, the roof and two rear corner panels of a 1976 Chrsyler Cordoba and a rear bumper with license plate number 955 HXN which were introduced as evidence at the preliminary hearing. These items were identified by William Acker and Earl Newkirk, respectively, as being portions of the automobiles which these individuals had reported stolen.

Defendant Percy was requested to give Deputy Boggio receipts for any impounded items of property which he claimed to own. Deputy Boggio discovered in the bag full of receipts which defendant presented to him and removed therefrom the registration slip and card which Acker testified he kept in the glove compartment of his stolen automobile.

At the conclusion of the hearing the trial court granted the 1538.5 motion to suppress and dismissed the charges against defendant Percy. The court did so on the basis that the People claimed only that the search was authorized by Vehicle Code section 2805 and the authority to search under that statute extends and is limited to members of the California Highway Patrol. Since Deputy Boggio was not a member of the California Highway Patrol, the court ruled that he was not authorized to conduct such an inspection.


The district attorney contends on appeal that Vehicle Code section 2805 authorizes peace officers other than members of the California Highway Patrol, such as a deputy sheriff, to conduct inspections of automobile repair shops and garages operated by automobile dismantlers for the purpose of locating stolen vehicles and vehicle parts.


Vehicle Code section 2805, as it read at the time of the events which are the subject of this litigation, specifically authorized members of the California Highway Patrol to inspect vehicles on a highway or in a public garage or repair shop or an automobile dismantler's lot in order to establish the rightful ownership or possession of the vehicle.2 The constitutional validity of this statute was recently reviewed and is established. (People v. Woolsey (1979) 90 Cal.App.3d 994, 1001-1004, 153 Cal.Rptr. 746.)

Although by its terms the statute limited the authority to inspect to members of the California Highway Patrol, a series of decisions by logical progression extended a similar authority to local police and other peace officers. The initial decision extending this authority was the case of People v. Grubb (1965) 63 Cal.2d 614, 47 Cal.Rptr. 772, 408 P.2d 100, where the court, although reversing the defendant's conviction, observed in reliance on Vehicle Code section 2805 that the activity of police officers who stopped to investigate a vehicle without lights parked on the wrong side of the road and protruding partially into a highway lane and who then entered the car without a warrant to look for the registration was proper. In a subsequent decision the court observed: “In People v. Grubb, … the court dealt with the right to search in a car for evidence of registration, and by implication extended to peace officers other than members of the highway patrol the authority conferred by section 2805, Vehicle Code.” (Curry v. Superior Court (1970) 7 Cal.App.3d 836, 845-846, 86 Cal.Rptr. 844.) A similar result was reached in the case of People v. Brown (1970) 4 Cal.App.3d 382, 84 Cal.Rptr. 390, where the search by officers of an unlocked car found with its ignition key in place to obtain an indication as to its ownership was upheld by that section. Similar authority has been extended to peace officers where the initial detention of the vehicle and its occupants resulted from an equipment violation (People v. Lingo (1970) 3 Cal.App.3d 661, 83 Cal.Rptr. 755). These and other cases make it clear that the authority of peace officers under section 2805 to search motor vehicles discovered under peculiar circumstances in order to determine their ownership and whether they were stolen was established by the appellate courts by 1970.

Although Vehicle Code section 2805 by its terms prior to January 1, 1980, referred only to the California Highway Patrol, the courts following the case of People v. Grubb, supra, 63 Cal.2d 614, 47 Cal.Rptr. 772, 408 P.2d 100, construed it broadly. This construction of the statute is consistent with its general purpose to facilitate the location of stolen vehicles. “The purpose of the statute [is] to eliminate trafficking in stolen cars and the illegal interchange of stolen auto-parts ․” (People v. Woolsey, supra, 90 Cal.App.3d 994, 1002, 153 Cal.Rptr. 746.) It is common knowledge that city police departments and county sheriff's departments regularly investigate cases involving stolen vehicles and stolen vehicle parts and it would not appear reasonable for exclusive authority to make a warrantless search of suspect premises be given by the Legislature to the California Highway Patrol which is not primarily engaged in such investigations.

“The fundamental rule of statutory construction is that the court should ascertain the intent of the Legislature so as to effectuate the purpose of the law. [Citations.] Moreover, ‘every statute should be construed with reference to the whole system of law of which it is a part so that all may be harmonized and have effect.’ [Citation.] If possible, significance should be given to every word, phrase, sentence and part of an act in pursuance of the legislative purpose. [Citation.] Such purpose will not be sacrificed to a literal construction of any part of the act. [Citations.]” (Select Base Materials v. Board of Equal. (1959) 51 Cal.2d 640, 645, 335 P.2d 672, 675.) Furthermore, “‘[T]he rule of law is well established that where the legislature uses terms already judicially construed, “the presumption is almost irresistible that it used them in the precise and technical sense which had been placed upon them by the courts.”’ [Citations.] …” (People v. Curtis (1969) 70 Cal.2d 347, 355, 74 Cal.Rptr. 713, 450 P.2d 33.)

As the public defender points out, People v. Grubb and various appellate cases herein referred to dealt principally with inspection of vehicles found on public streets. Defendant argues that authority to inspect without a warrant is extended to police officers and deputy sheriffs only when the inspection is based on reasonable cause (Veh. Code, § 2806).

The decision in Chambers v. Maroney (1970) 399 U.S. 42, 90 S.Ct. 1975, 26 L.Ed.2d 419, referred to by defendant has little, if any, bearing on the authority for a deputy sheriff to conduct a warrantless inspection of the premises of a car dismantler. In that decision and Carroll v. United States (1925) 267 U.S. 132, 45 S.Ct. 280, 69 L.Ed. 543, the court was concerned with delineating circumstances under which probable cause could be dispensed with when the target of the search was the automobile rather than police authority under a statute such as Vehicle Code section 2805 to inspect premises upon which stolen auto parts and registration documents might be found.

In general, of course, probable cause is required even to support a warrantless search of business premises, but under special circumstances the Legislature may dispense with it. Warrantless inspection of vehicles at the garage of an automobile dismantler has been held to fall within the exception recognized for premises which house a “pervasively regulated business …” (United States v. Biswell (1972) 406 U.S. 311, 316, 92 S.Ct. 1593, 1596, 32 L.Ed.2d 87) under the authority of Vehicle Code section 320 (People v. Easley (1979) 90 Cal.App.3d 440, 153 Cal.Rptr. 396). However, it appears probable cause may have existed in that case. The court did not discuss it but ruled that Vehicle Code section 320 did not contemplate the necessity for probable cause as a prerequisite to the inspection.

We are not bound by the decision in Jackson v. Superior Court (1977) 74 Cal.App.3d 361, 142 Cal.Rptr. 299, which held the warrantless search by a California Highway Patrol officer of the car of a person apprehended for drunk driving to be impermissible in the absence of probable cause. The court reached this conclusion on the following basis: “[T]he purpose of Vehicle Code section 2805 is to enforce the registration laws and to check on stolen vehicles and parts. Nevertheless, we believe that to balance such purposes and the right to privacy (see Cal.Const., art. I, § 13, and art. I, § 1), when the vehicle is occupied, the officer must first inquire as to the location of the registration slip in the vehicle before entering to obtain it․” (Id., at p. 367, 142 Cal.Rptr. at p. 302, italics added.) It is clear that under People v. Easley, supra, the owner of an automobile dismantling garage is not entitled to similar constitutional protections.

To remove any doubt as to its intention to apply the statute to peace officers other than the California Highway Patrol, the California Legislature has, however, recently undertaken to amend Vehicle Code section 2805, subdivision (a). That subdivision now reads, in pertinent part, as follows: “For the purpose of locating stolen vehicles, a member of the California High-way Patrol, or a member of a city police department or county sheriff's office whose primary responsibility is to conduct vehicle theft investigations, may inspect …” vehicles, inter alia, on a highway or in any public garage, automobile dismantler's lot, or rental lot to establish the rightful ownership or possession of the vehicle.

In view of the fact that it appears this legislative amendment may have been undertaken in response to the narrow and restrictive view of Vehicle Code section 2805 expressed in such a case as Jackson v. Superior Court, it fortifies our conclusion that the intent of the Legislature remained consistent and that it was the legislative intent that the statutory authority to make investigations without a warrant in the places and under the circumstances therein delineated should extend to both California Highway Patrol and other peace officers.


The order of the trial court granting the 1538.5 motion and dismissing the case is reversed.


1.  At the 1538.5 hearing it was stipulated that the court could determine the motion on the basis of evidence presented in the preliminary hearing as well as any additional evidence which either party wished to offer. Neither party, however, sought to introduce new evidence.

2.  Vehicle Code section 2805, subdivision (a), read as follows:“For the purpose of locating stolen vehicles, a member of the California Highway Patrol may inspect any vehicle of a type required to be registered under this code on a highway or ership or possession of the vehicle.”in any public garage, repair shop, parking lot, new or used car lot, automobile dismantler's lot, vehicle shredding facility, vehicle leasing or rental lot, vehicle equipment rental yard, vehicle salvage pool, or other similar establishment, and may inspect the title or registration of vehicles, in order to establish the rightful own-

L. THAXTON HANSON, Associate Justice.

LILLIE, Acting P. J., and J. M. NEWMAN,* J., concur.Hearing denied; BIRD, C. J., and CLARK, J., dissenting.