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United States v. Venezia.

No. 19-1432. D.Colo. Judge Briscoe. Fourth Amendment—Vehicle Impoundment—Warrant Exceptions—Standardized Criteria—Community Caretaking Exception.

May 3, 2021

Police officers were conducting a routine patrol when they observed a vehicle failing to signal a turn on its way from a motel parking lot to a gas station. When the vehicle returned to the motel parking lot, officers observed that the front and rear license plates were not properly affixed. Officers approached the vehicle based on the illegal turn they had observed and asked defendant, the driver, for his license, registration, and insurance. Defendant lacked these documents but presented a Colorado identification card. Officers determined that defendant’s license had been revoked and he had an outstanding misdemeanor warrant. The officers arrested defendant on the outstanding warrant and impounded the vehicle over his objection. During the inventory search conducted as part of the impoundment, law enforcement found drugs, distribution paraphernalia, a gun holster, and ammunition. After defendant was released on bond, he was able to establish that he owned the vehicle.

As relevant here, a grand jury charged defendant with one count of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. Defendant moved to suppress the evidence recovered in the search. At the suppression hearing, the district court concluded the impoundment was conducted pursuant to the police department’s standardized written policies and was justified by a community caretaking rationale, and it denied the suppression request. Defendant entered a conditional guilty plea, reserving the right to appeal the motion denial.

On appeal, defendant argued that the impoundment was not warranted by the Fourth Amendment’s community caretaking exception. In the absence of a warrant, a search is reasonable only if it falls within a specific exception to the warrant requirement. The community caretaking exception justifies impoundment when a vehicle is not impeding traffic or impairing public safety and the impoundment is guided by (1) standardized criteria and (2) a legitimate community caretaking rationale. The impoundment here was consistent with the police department’s standardized impoundment policies set forth in the department’s manual, which encourages impoundment when a driver does not have a valid driver’s license, the car is registered to another person, and the officer is unable to verify the driver has permission to drive the vehicle. The fact that this information was included in the police department manual and not the applicable municipal code was of no legal consequence, as the standardized criteria may be set forth in law or another governing document.

As to the second prong, courts use a five-factor test to determine whether  an impoundment was justified by a reasonable, non-pretextual community caretaking rationale: (1) whether the vehicle was on private property; (2) if so, whether the property owner was consulted; (3) whether an alternative to impoundment exists; (4) whether the vehicle is implicated in a crime; and (5) whether the vehicle’s owner and/or driver consented to the impoundment. Here, while the fifth factor weighed in favor of impoundment, the first four factors weighed against impoundment because the vehicle was on private property; the property owner was not consulted; there were reasonable alternatives to impoundment because the vehicle could have remained in the motel parking lot until the motel owner objected, the officers contacted the registered owner, or the vehicle was deemed abandoned; and impounding did not provide further evidence of the traffic violation or outstanding warrant. Accordingly, impoundment was not justified by the community caretaking rationale.

The denial of the motion to suppress was reversed and the matter was remanded with directions to vacate defendant’s conviction and sentence.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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