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Shovels, Brooms & Buckets

Think back to a time earlier in the year when the sun was out, the air was warming, the trees were turning green. As you walked past the pear tree in your backyard, you took a piece of the fruit, ate it and instantly died. Why? Because the fruit was poison, that’s why. When it comes to enforcing laws, police officers have to be aware of the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine. There are a host of laws specific to tow-trucks, but they are easily poisonous fruit, and the article this week explains why.

Before traveling down this road, it’s time to pause and remember what is coming in just a few days: tow-truck registration enforcement. At the stroke of midnight on January 1st, all Illinois base tow-truck plates which have not been renewed, will expire. You can read more about that topic by clicking HERE.

And because tow-truck registration is at the forefront of a truck enforcement officer’s mind this time of year, it’s not uncommon for all things tow-trucks to be considered. The ideology of the law is irrelevant. The proper enforcement methods, however, is paramount.

In 2003, Illinois made a violation of the seatbelt law primary probable cause to stop a vehicle. Before that time, police officers had to find other lawful reasons to stop vehicles in order to cite drivers who were unbuckled. To have made a seatbelt violation the primary reason for the traffic stop was unlawful. If the stop (or the analogous “tree”) was bad, everything after (the analogous “fruit”) was poison. Get it?

This is the same principle that applies to suspended driver’s license violations, DUI, searches etc. Just because there is a law on the books does not mean a police officer can automatically enforce it. It’s a ramp. A police officer starts with one thing, and based on his abilities to ask questions and be a good investigative police officer, he may be able to find additional violations of the law.

Another example of this (and a future blog article of its own) is the difference between “inspection” and “investigation”. There are many times the Supreme Court has given police officers or other agents of the government the authority to conduct warrantless searches. While a search typically has the connotation of drugs, weapons or other contraband, it really is a quest to find other violations of the law.

Health code inspectors can enter a dwelling without a warrant or probable cause and inspect for violations of a law. The Illinois State Police troopers can stop any commercial vehicle without a warrant or probable cause and inspect for violations of the FMCSR.

Local police officers are never given any authority under the Illinois Vehicle Code to inspect trucks suspected of breaking the law. They are vested under the color of law to investigate violations. This means building a case and not eating the fruit of the poisonous tree.

Chapter 12 of the Illinois Vehicle Code (625 ILCS 5/12-606) speaks to certain equipment which must be carried on a tow-truck. When talking about registration and higher axle weights afforded to tow-trucks, the tow-truck definition is limited to those vehicles which are actually towing another vehicle during a towing operation. When it comes to the equipment specific to all tow-trucks, it can be either a vehicle towing or carrying another (625 ILCS 5/1-205.1).

All tow-trucks (towing or carrying) are required to have the following equipment: •   One or more brooms and shovels •   One or more 5 gallon trash cans •   One fire extinguisher

Failure to carry these items is against the law, and may be cited by any police officer in Illinois. Discovery of these violations is another issue. Illinois police officers have no/none/zero/zilch/nada authority to stop a tow-truck solely to inspect for these violations. Police officers must find lawful reasons to stop a tow-truck and then ask the driver questions as to his compliance, aka investigate.

On the scale of severity, drugs and weapons are in a different class of crime compared to a tow-truck driver not having a shovel. But they are both violations of the law nonetheless. A police officer may not stop or search tow-trucks for shovels and brooms any more lawfully than he can stop cars and search for drugs and weapons.

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