People v. Thomas.
2021 COA 23. No. 17CA2132. Constitutional Law—Fourth Amendment—Searches and Seizures—Motor Vehicle—Warrantless Search—Fruit of the Poisonous Tree—Community Caretaking Exception—Impounding Vehicle.
February 25, 2021
An officer stopped defendant’s vehicle for a traffic violation. Defendant pulled the car over to the right-side curb of a residential street. The officer discovered that defendant had an outstanding warrant and arrested him. Defendant asked if he could call his wife to pick up the vehicle from the parking space. Instead, the officer requested a tow of the vehicle. To prepare the vehicle for towing, the officer conducted an inventory search during which he found a handgun, methamphetamine, a knife, and a blackjack.
Based on that evidence, the prosecution charged defendant with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, three counts of possession of a weapon by a previous offender, and possession of an illegal weapon. Defendant moved to suppress the evidence discovered during the inventory search. The district court denied the motion, and the jury convicted him as charged.
On appeal, defendant argued that the district court erroneously denied his motion to suppress. The threshold inquiry when determining the reasonableness of an inventory search is whether the vehicle impoundment was proper. Officers may reasonably remove vehicles that are hazardous or disabled, parked illegally, blocking access to private property, or obstructing traffic on public roads. Here, defendant’s vehicle was legally parked on a residential street, and defendant provided proof of ownership and testified that he asked the officer to allow him to call his wife to retrieve the vehicle, thereby assuming the risk of vandalism and theft if his wife did not do so. Therefore, because neither the safekeeping rationale nor any other community caretaking function applied, the prosecution failed to meet its burden to prove that the seizure of defendant’s vehicle fell within the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Accordingly, the seizure was unreasonable, and the fruits of the subsequent inventory search should have been suppressed.
The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.