The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Brown on Thursday, October 20, 2016.
Carl Brown was pulled over for failing to make a complete stop at a stop sign. The officer who pulled him over discovered Mr. Brown was driving with a suspended license. The officer decided to issue Mr. Brown a summons, but not arrest him. The officer then impounded Mr. Brown’s car and conducted an inventory search, which revealed drugs. At that time, Mr. Brown was arrested, charged with, and ultimately convicted of possession of a controlled substance (over two grams) and possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute.
On appeal, Mr. Brown argued that the inventory search violated the Fourth Amendment, and the contents of that search should therefore have been suppressed. Mr. Brown argued several other points of error, but because the Colorado Court of Appeals agreed with him that the initial search was illegal, it did not address his remaining contentions.
The court evaluated the impoundment statute, which allows for police to impound a vehicle when the impoundment occurs to further public safety, community caretaking functions, or to remove disabled or damaged vehicles. The officer who pulled Mr. Brown over testified that Mr. Brown’s vehicle was off the road, not blocking traffic. He testified that he impounded the vehicle because Mr. Brown’s license was suspended. The court found this insufficient to survive a Fourth Amendment analysis. The court noted that because the officer decided not to arrest Mr. Brown, there was no reason why Mr. Brown could not have stayed with his vehicle and either called a friend to drive the car or called a tow truck himself. Because the officer did not give Mr. Brown the choice of whether to take care of the vehicle himself or have the police impound it, the seizure was unlawful in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The court of appeals reversed and remanded with orders for the trial court to grant the motion to suppress and for proceedings consistent with their opinion.