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United States v. Ramos.

No. 23-6071. 12/15/2023. W.D.Okla. Judge Murphy. Qualified Immunity—Excessive Force—Fourth Amendment—Summary Judgment—Collateral Order Doctrine.

December 15, 2023

Officer Puentes responded to a call about a public disturbance at the Hop & Sack Convenience Store. Puentes observed two men having a physical altercation in the parking lot. He separated the combatants, and as Puentes was pulling Ramos off to the side, Ramos turned and lightly tapped him on his right cheek. Puentes arrested Ramos for assault and battery on a police officer. Puentes then decided to impound Ramos’s vehicle. Puentes asked Ramos if he needed anything out of his truck. Ramos said he had everything he needed and indicated the truck belonged to his mother, Juanes. Ramos asked if he could call Juanes to pick up the truck, but Puentes never called Juanes, despite admitting he could have obtained her phone number from Ramos. Ramos left with another officer for the jail, and Puentes obtained a written statement from the store clerk but did not ask for her permission to tow Ramos’s truck. Puentes conducted an inventory search in anticipation of the truck’s impoundment that revealed a machine gun and ammunition. Ramos was charged with unlawful possession of a machine gun and being a felon illegally in possession of ammunition. He moved to suppress the machine gun and ammunition, asserting the truck’s impoundment violated the Fourth Amendment because it was not consistent with standardized policy and was not supported by a reasonable, non-pretextual community-caretaking rationale. The district court denied the motion, and Ramos entered a conditional guilty plea to unlawful possession of a machine gun.

On appeal, Ramos argued that the district court erred in denying his suppression motion because the machine gun was the product of an illegal search. Here, absent a search warrant, the search of Ramos’s truck was reasonable only if it fell within the community-caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, which allows law enforcement to impound an automobile and, in connection with the impoundment, inventory the vehicle’s contents. To be consistent with the Fourth Amendment, such an impoundment must be justified by a reasonable, non-pretextual community-caretaking rationale and a standardized police policy. To determine whether an impoundment was a reasonable exercise of community-caretaking, courts examine five factors under United States v. Sanders, 796 F.3d 1241, 1243 (10th Cir. 2015): (1) whether the vehicle is on public or private property; (2) if on private property, whether the property owner has been consulted; (3) whether an alternative to impoundment exists, such as another person capable of driving the vehicle; (4) whether the vehicle is implicated in a crime; and (5) whether the vehicle’s owner and/or driver have consented to the impoundment. The district court found that the first three factors weighed in favor of impoundment. The government conceded, and the district court recognized, that the fourth and fifth factors weighed against impoundment. As to the first factor, Ramos’s truck was legally parked in a private parking lot and was not obstructing traffic. Under Tenth Circuit precedent, the private nature of the property weighs against impoundment, and that factor is entitled to more than a little weight. As to the second factor, public safety and convenience are less likely to be at risk when a vehicle is located on private property, especially when the private property owner does not object to the vehicle’s presence. Here, it is undisputed that the store owner, manager, and clerk were not consulted about towing or leaving Ramos’s truck in the parking lot, and the record conclusively establishes that consultation with the private property owner would not have been difficult. Accordingly, this factor weighs against the reasonableness of the impoundment of Ramos’s truck. As to the third factor, neither the district court nor the government identified a valid impediment to granting Ramos’s request to call Juanes to come and get the truck. Because each of the five Sanders factors weighs against the reasonableness of the community-caretaking-based impoundment of Ramos’s truck, the impoundment was not reasonable, it violated the Fourth Amendment, and the district court erred in denying the suppression motion. Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit did not resolve whether the impoundment of Ramos’s truck was consistent with police policy.

The order denying Ramos’s suppression motion was reversed and the matter was remanded for further proceedings.

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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