April 21, 2018

Tenth Circuit: Vehicle Unlawfully Impounded when Legally Parked on Private Property

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Sanders on Friday, August 7, 2015.

Beverly Sanders was arrested as she was leaving a store in Aurora, Colorado, based on an outstanding warrant for failure to comply with probation conditions. Her friend with whom she had been shopping was not detained at first, but was later arrested when police found a baggie of heroin near where he had been. Although the friend offered to find someone to remove Sanders’ car, the police impounded the vehicle, claiming it was at risk for theft or vandalism. A subsequent inventory search revealed methamphetamine, Ecstasy, and paraphernalia. Sanders was indicted for possessing controlled substances with intent to distribute. She moved to suppress the contents of the inventory search, and the district court granted her motion. The government filed a timely interlocutory appeal.

The government argued that seizure of the car was necessary pursuant to the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. The Tenth Circuit explored the strictures of the community caretaking exception in depth, explaining that it generally applies to protect the public safety or promote efficient movement of traffic, and that warrantless impoundments exercised as a pretext for investigation or not exercised according to standardized criteria are unconstitutional. Applying prior case law from its circuit and other circuits, the Tenth Circuit held that “impoundment of a vehicle on private property that is neither obstructing traffic nor creating an imminent threat to public safety is constitutional only if justified by both a standardized policy and a reasonable, nonpretextual community-caretaking rationale.” In this case, the vehicle was parked legally on private property, neither obstructing traffic nor threatening public safety. The Aurora Police Department’s standardized policy regarding vehicles legally parked on private property was to either have Sanders release them from potential liability if the car was left in the lot or have it towed by a private company. They neither offered Sanders these options nor explained their failure to do so, and thus the impoundment was unlawful. Additionally, the Tenth Circuit found the Aurora policies unlawful because they do not offer an officer discretion as to which option to choose. The Tenth Circuit held the impoundment was unlawful for an independent reason: it was not justified by a reasonable, non-pretextual community caretaking rationale.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s suppression order.