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United States v. Woodard.

No. 20-5004.  N.D.Okla. Judge Bacharach. Fourth Amendment—Motion to Suppress—Impoundment Policy—Impoundment as Pretext to Investigate.

July 26, 2021

A caller contacted police to report that defendant violated a protective order, was fighting a huge drug case, smoked PCP, and had previous gun cases. Following the call, police discovered that defendant had an outstanding warrant for misdemeanor public intoxication. Police then searched for defendant to serve the warrant and the protective order. They found him in Tulsa and initiated a traffic stop. Defendant pulled into a parking lot at a convenience store and was arrested based on the warrant. Defendant asked if he could have someone pick up his car but instead police impounded the car.

Officers then searched the car and found marijuana, cocaine, a digital scale, and a gun. They obtained a warrant allowing access to defendant’s text messages on his cell phone. These messages provided evidence of drug dealing. With the benefit of these messages, the government charged defendant with crimes arising from the Tulsa traffic stop and from an earlier traffic stop where police had found cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and a firearm.

Defendant moved to suppress all evidence from the Tulsa traffic stop, arguing that the police department’s policy had not authorized impoundment of the car, and officers ordered impoundment as a pretext to investigate suspected crimes. The district court concluded that the officers had relied on a standardized policy and a reasonable, non-pretextual rationale of community caretaking and denied the motion to suppress. Defendant was convicted on all charges.

Defendant argued on appeal that the police department’s policy did not authorize impoundment of his car because he had not committed an offense on a public way. The impoundment policy generally restricted impoundment to removal of vehicles from a public way and created a limited exception for private property when an offense was committed on a public way. Here, police stopped defendant to serve a protective order and execute an arrest warrant. While the stop occurred on a public way, there was no offense committed on the public way. Therefore, the policy did not authorize impoundment, and the district court erred.

Further, even if the policy had allowed for impoundment, the police impounded the car as a pretext to search for evidence of a crime. The Tenth Circuit determined that all five factors for determining pretext pointed to a pretextual stop: (1) the car was on private property; (2) the property owner had not been consulted; (3) an alternative to impoundment existed, because defendant asked if someone else could drive the car away; (4) the car was not implicated in a crime; and (5) the driver did not consent to impoundment. In addition, the officers’ comments during the search exhibited an intent to look for drugs, not to safeguard the car and its contents. Accordingly, the district court erred in denying the motion to suppress, and the error required reversal.

The convictions on all counts were reversed.

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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