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United States v. Kendall.

No. 19-1465.  D.Colo. Judge Ebel. Fourth Amendment—Motion to Suppress—Impoundment—Community Caretaking Doctrine—Scope of Inventory Search.

September 27, 2021

A police officer activated his vehicle’s emergency lights when he spotted a vehicle with one working taillight. Defendant, who was driving the vehicle, slowed to approximately 10 mph but continued to drive for eight blocks. The officer noticed defendant moving around inside the vehicle in an erratic way, and another officer who arrived to provide backup saw defendant moving objects on the passenger seat in a frantic motion. During the slow-speed chase, dispatch informed the officer that the license plates were registered to a different vehicle. Defendant ultimately stopped the vehicle on the side of a public road and officers ordered him to exit. They handcuffed defendant and read him his Miranda rights, which he waived.

During the traffic stop investigation, officers learned that defendant did not have a valid driver’s license or proof of insurance, and while the vehicle was not reported stolen, it was registered to another individual. Officers were unable to immediately reach the vehicle’s owner. They then issued defendant a noncustodial summons for the motor vehicle violations and decided to tow the vehicle, per police department policy, because defendant could not legally drive it.

During the subsequent inventory search, an officer found a counterfeit $20 bill and an empty concealed carry handgun holster. Defendant was placed under custodial arrest for felony forgery and transported to the police station. Meanwhile, the inventory search continued. While searching the center console, an officer saw a small plastic bag sticking out from beneath the panel and discovered an additional compartment containing a small bag of methamphetamine and two bags of heroin. He also noticed that the panel below the glove compartment was not flush, and after lightly pulling it, located a handgun. While the car was being loaded onto the tow truck, the vehicle owner called and reported that defendant was in the process of buying the vehicle from her. However, she did not attempt to stop the towing or offer to retrieve the vehicle from the scene, and it was towed.

Defendant was charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, unlawful possession of a firearm by a previously convicted felon, and possession of a firearm during and in furtherance of drug trafficking. The district court denied his motion to suppress the physical evidence. Defendant pleaded guilty to possessing heroin with intent to distribute and possessing a firearm as a felon, and the remaining charges were dismissed. The district court sentenced defendant to 95 months in prison on each conviction, to run concurrently.

Defendant appealed the denial of his motion to suppress, arguing that the vehicle impoundment was unreasonable. Here, the vehicle impoundment was justified by a reasonable, non-pretextual community caretaking rationale: securing an uninsured vehicle on the side of a public road with inadequate taillights until a licensed driver with a legitimate connection to the vehicle could rectify the issues and drive the vehicle without endangering public safety. Accordingly, the impoundment was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

Defendant also argued that even if the impoundment was lawful and an inventory search was permissible, the search was too broad to justify any administrative purpose and was instead a ruse to search for evidence of criminal activity. However, the center console had obviously been modified so that items could be stored underneath, and the console’s bottom was slightly raised with a plastic bag sticking out. It was thus reasonable for officers to believe that the area underneath the center console was being used as a storage compartment and a search of that area was necessary as part of the inventory search. And though the interior panel beneath the glove box search was not justified as an inventory search because nothing indicated that it was being used as a storage compartment, that search was justified as a community caretaking function because the officer had reasonable grounds to suspect a firearm remained in the vehicle due to the empty holster and defendant’s erratic movements. Further, the vehicle search was conducted in accordance with police department policy. Accordingly, the vehicle search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

The denial of defendant’s motion to suppress was affirmed.

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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