From the Classroom
By Ray Hill
Professor Emeritus, Santa Rosa Junior College
Vehicle Inventory Searches and the “Community Caretaking” Function
With the proliferation of “side shows” in Sonoma County, I had an “OG” officer tell me: “If I have reason to tow the car, I’m going to search it.” Certainly, you should follow your standardized department policies in a decision to impound and complete inventory paperwork prior to a tow (South Dakota v. Opperman (1976) 428 U.S. 364; Colorado v. Bertine (1987) 479 U.S. 367). Your agency policy is based upon: 1) Protecting you and your agency from false allegations of theft or damage to the vehicle or property within; 2) Protecting the vehicle itself and its contents from theft or vandalism given the area in which it is parked; 3) Protecting and securing any high-value property inside the car for safekeeping and return; and 4) Securing dangerous devices or hazardous materials for public safety reasons, i.e., explosives, flammables, and chemicals.
Despite the authority of a California statute, or city/county ordinances, for towing (i.e., driving with a revoked license, registration fees due, custodial arrest), Fourth Amendment case law specifies that an inventory search will not result in the admissibility of any evidence “fortuitously” found in the car unless there is a “caretaking purpose” for the impound.
- “The fact that an inventory search is authorized by statute is not determinative of the search’s constitutionality.” (Peo. v. Torres (2010) 188 Cal. App. 4th 775)
- “Indeed, search jurisprudence presumes some objectively reasonable basis for supporting the impound.” (Peo. v. Williams (2006) 145 Cal. App. 5th 1006)
- “To be lawful, the impound must both be authorized by statute and in compliance with the “community caretaking doctrine.” (Peo. v. Lee (2019) 40 Cal. App. 5th 883)
Further Case Rulings
A Buena Park Police officer arrested the defendant for driving under the influence of drugs. Defendant’s vehicle was parked in a drug store lot where there had been reported thefts and robberies. The vehicle was impounded for “safekeeping.” The officer had a duty to protect the vehicle. It was unknown when the defendant would be released from jail and leaving the vehicle at the arrest location would have subjected the car to the possibility of theft or vandalism (Ramirez v. City of Buena Park, (2009) 510 F. 3d 1012).
The defendant was stopped by the CHP after traveling on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge at over 110 MPH. The stop was made at 3:40 a.m. at MacArthur Boulevard and Market Street in Oakland, a known “high-crime area.” Defendant was arrested for DUI. An inventory search of his new Mercedes-Benz revealed three “large” bags of marijuana and $50,000 cash stored in a box inside the trunk. The impound was based on a “caretaking purpose” because the defendant’s vehicle otherwise would have been parked unprotected in a “high-crime area” where auto theft and other crimes were common (Peo. v. Shafrir (2010) 183 Cal. App. 4th 1239).
A “nicer, newer model car” would be subject to increased risk of theft or burglary if left unattended in a rural area of Santa Cruz County (Peo. v. Nottoli (2011) 199 Cal. App. 4th 54).
Where the defendant parked his vehicle blocking a driveway, two feet from the pavement edge on a narrow road, and was arrested for DUI/drugs, an impound search was lawful. V.C. 22651(b) permits an impound when a vehicle is parked in a position that would obstruct or impede traffic and create a collision hazard. V.C. 22651(h) permits an impound when a driver is arrested and taken into custody. The search was conducted with a “community caretaking” purpose to inventory what property was in the vehicle to protect the police department against a claim or damage or theft (Peo. v. Quick (2016) 5 Cal. App. 5th 1066).
Responding to a domestic violence call, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police officers contacted the defendant (driver) and a female passenger in an apartment complex parking structure. The vehicle was in a “No Parking” area and was blocking other vehicles. The defendant was arrested for DUI. The vehicle’s registration had expired, current ownership could not be verified, and the female passenger was unlicensed. While completing a vehicle impound check list, officers opened the hood and unlatched the air filter, where they recovered a semi-auto pistol. The weapon had been stolen in a burglary earlier in the day and the defendant was a convicted felon. 9USCA ruled this search had a “caretaking purpose.” The vehicle was impeding emergency vehicle access and blocking parking stalls. Ownership of the car could not be determined and there was no licensed person who could move the vehicle. LVMPD policy directed “searching all containers within the vehicle, along with enclosed spaces, and their contents.” The objective of such a search is to protect personal items from theft or vandalism, ensure against false claims of lost or stolen property, and to guard officers and others from danger. The officer testified that in his training and experience, people often hide weapons and other property in the engine compartment. Searching the air filter compartment was reasonable “to protect the public from the possibility that a revolver would fall into untrained or perhaps malicious hands” (U.S. v. Torres (2016) 9th Circ. 828 F. 3d 1113).
A defendant’s vehicle was stopped by a San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy for having the license plate out. The defendant parked his vehicle on private property. His driver’s license had expired. The decision was made to tow the vehicle because the property owner wanted it removed (he did not know the defendant), there was no one else at the scene to drive the car, and the defendant stated that he was from out of the area. An inventory search recovered a handgun under the front seat. The defendant was a convicted felon. The impound search was reasonable and had a “caretaking purpose” since the vehicle was illegally parked and there is a government interest to protect and secure property before a tow (U.S. v. Anderson (2022) 9th Circ. #20-50345).
Note: One dissenting judge ruled the search was an unlawful “pretext search” because the deputy did not complete a full inventory of the vehicle contents. He only recorded items that had evidentiary value. In another case, part of the justification for suppressing the evidence found during a search was the fact the deputy failed to complete inventory paperwork (Peo. v. Williams (1999) 20 Cal. 4th 119). Good points for the future. Always fully complete your CHP-180 or department equivalent inventory report to support the administrative motive behind the search.
Safe Haven Rules
If a vehicle has reached “safe haven,” an inventory search would not be lawful even where a California statute authorizes impound. After reaching “safe haven” there is no longer a “caretaking purpose” for impounding the vehicle.
An Oregon police officer observed the plaintiff’s vehicle being driven in a residential neighborhood at 10 MPH. The officer suspected the driver might be impaired. A traffic stop was initiated and the vehicle pulled into the plaintiff’s driveway. Mrs. Miranda was driving the car, unlicensed and uninsured. Her husband was teaching her how to drive. The officer issued citations and impounded the car per local statute. This impound was unreasonable because the car was safely parked -- had reached “safe haven” -- and was not obstructing the movement of traffic. There was no duty to protect a vehicle in the owner’s driveway because the car would not be subject to any additional hazard of theft or vandalism. (Miranda v. City of Cornelius, Oregon (2005) 9th Circ. 429 F. 859).
The defendant was stopped for not wearing a seat belt. He pulled to the curb in front of his house and parked legally. He was arrested on an outstanding warrant. An impound search recovered a loaded firearm inside a bag on the back seat. The impound was unlawful because the car presented no traffic hazard and was not an unusual target for vandalism or theft at the owner’s residence. The prosecution’s argument that the car should be impounded because the Vehicle Code permits such action doesn’t take precedence over establishing a “caretaking purpose.” (Peo. v. Williams (2006) 145 Cal. App. 5th 1006).
An inventory search was unlawful where the defendant’s car was legally parked two houses away from his residence. “The possibility that the vehicle would be stolen, broken into, or vandalized was no greater than if the police had not arrested (the defendant) as he returned home.” (U.S. v. Caseres (2008) 9th Circ. 533 F. 3d 1064).
After a traffic stop, defendant’s vehicle was legally parked in a public parking lot. Statutory authority to impound a vehicle (driving with a suspended license) didn’t justify an inventory search absent a “community caretaking” purpose. The vehicle did not pose a hazard to others and there was no testimony that leaving the vehicle at that location would pose a threat of vandalism or theft. The inventory was also used as a “pretext” to investigate criminal activity (Deputies’ testimony: “At the time it was an inventory search incident to a tow, but the burnt marijuana that I could smell also weighed heavily on my decision to search the vehicle.” and “Circumstances made me feel as though something else was going on besides just a suspended license.” An inventory search cannot be used as the basis for an exploratory search for evidence or contraband. There was no articulated basis to conduct a probable cause search based on the unspecified odor of cannabis (Blakes v. Superior Court (2021) 72 Cal. App. 5th 904).
As opposed to searches incident to arrest, the “automobile exception,” consent, or probation/parole searches, an inventory search cannot be used as a “pretext” to look for evidence/contraband. You are conducting the inventory to fulfill the “standardized procedures” outlined in your agency policy. That’s not to say you have to limit yourself to a plain-view discovery during your search, but searching for evidence cannot be your motive! (Harris v. U.S. (1968) 234). If you keep the “administrative basis” of the search forefront in your mind, then benefit by “fortuitous” discovery of evidence/contraband, you always will be able to write truthfully in your police report and testify truthfully in court.
More Detail in Our Fourth Amendment Guide
Also refer to Bob Phillips “The Fourth Amendment – Search and Seizure – An Update, 23rd Edition, March 2023, Pages 1437-1445).
So, the bottom line here: Follow your agency policy with respect to impounding vehicles per the California Vehicle Code or county/city ordinance. You will need to articulate a “caretaking purpose” for the impound in your police report and courtroom testimony if you inventory results in the “fortuitous” discovery of evidence or contraband. A statute alone doesn’t cut it. Without the “caretaking purpose,” any evidence/contraband will be challenged in a 1538 motion.
Hill’s Rule #2
“The law is not always logical, it just is!
To my OG officer friend, I expressed the following “educational opinion:” The city and county ordinances authorizing the impound of vehicles involved in “side shows” should contain verbiage expressing a “caretaking purpose” to abate a nuisance involving a hazardous condition and danger to the public through repetitive reckless driving. For example, there is statutory precedent for impounding vehicles of arrested suspects who engage in prostitution, pimping, or pandering crimes because such offenses create a public nuisance (22639.5 V.C.). “Side show” ordinances are “new kids on the block.” so case law precedent has not yet evolved. But the nuisance abatement motive certainly seems logical and should be contained as the justification for “community caretaking” in your police report.
Note: If you want a refresher, here are some previous California Legal Update posts pertaining to vehicle searches: