796 F.3d 1241 (10th Cir. 2015), 14-1296, United States v. Sanders

Docket Nº:14-1296
Citation:796 F.3d 1241
Opinion Judge:LUCERO, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellant, v. BEVERLY KIM SANDERS, Defendant - Appellee
Attorney:J. Bishop Grewell, Assistant United States Attorney (John F. Walsh, United States Attorney, with him on the briefs), Office of the United States Attorney, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellant. Howard A. Pincus, Assistant Federal Public Defender (Virginia L. Grady, Federal Public Defender, wi...
Judge Panel:Before LUCERO, BACHARACH, and McHUGH, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:August 07, 2015
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
SUMMARY

Police officers in Aurora, Colorado were looking for Beverly Sanders on an outstanding warrant for failure to comply with probation conditions related to a prior controlled substance conviction. They found a Mitsubishi Eclipse that they believed belonged to Sanders parked in the lot of a Goodwill store. Sanders and a companion, Ian Hussey, exited the store, walked to the car, and were ordered to the ground by police. Sanders was immediately arrested for the outstanding warrant. Although Sanders gave permission for a third party to come pick up the vehicle, the police did not ask Sanders... (see full summary)

 
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Page 1241

796 F.3d 1241 (10th Cir. 2015)

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellant,

v.

BEVERLY KIM SANDERS, Defendant - Appellee

No. 14-1296

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

August 7, 2015

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Colorado. (D.C. No. 1:14-CR-00138-PAB-1).

J. Bishop Grewell, Assistant United States Attorney (John F. Walsh, United States Attorney, with him on the briefs), Office of the United States Attorney, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Howard A. Pincus, Assistant Federal Public Defender (Virginia L. Grady, Federal Public Defender, with him on the brief), Office of the Federal Public Defender, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellee.

Before LUCERO, BACHARACH, and McHUGH, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

LUCERO, Circuit Judge.

We consider the constitutionality of a decision to impound a vehicle based on a community-caretaking justification. Such impoundments have been the topic of substantial debate and disagreement among our sibling circuits. In this case, police, for reasons not articulated in any policy, impounded a vehicle lawfully parked in a private lot after arresting its driver as she exited a store. They made no meaningful attempt to allow the driver, her companion, or the owner of the parking lot to make alternative arrangements. The district court granted a motion to suppress contraband found in the vehicle, and the United States filed an interlocutory appeal. After surveying Supreme Court and Tenth Circuit precedent as well as persuasive authority from other circuits, we hold that when a vehicle is not impeding traffic or impairing public safety, impoundments are constitutional only if guided by both standardized criteria and a legitimate community-caretaking rationale. We conclude that the impoundment at issue in this case is unconstitutional for two reasons: it was not guided by standardized criteria, and was not justified by a legitimate community-caretaking rationale. Under our holding, either failure alone would be sufficient to establish unconstitutionality. Exercising jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. § 3731, we AFFIRM the district court's grant of the motion to suppress.

I

Police officers in Aurora, Colorado were looking for Beverly Sanders on an outstanding warrant for failure to comply with probation conditions related to a prior controlled substance conviction. They found a Mitsubishi Eclipse that they believed belonged to Sanders parked in the lot of a Goodwill store. Sanders and a companion, Ian Hussey, exited the store, walked to the car, and were ordered to the ground by police. Sanders was immediately arrested for the outstanding warrant. Although Sanders gave permission for a third party to come pick up the vehicle, the police did not ask Sanders whether she knew anyone who could remove the car.

Hussey was released after police cleared him of outstanding warrants, but he remained on the scene, inquiring about what would happen to the car and offering to contact someone to pick up the car, although he did not identify anyone specifically. Police were unwilling to release the car to Hussey because he did not have a valid driver's license. Approximately thirty seconds after Hussey was released, he was arrested when police found a baggie containing what appeared to be heroin near the location where he had been ordered to the ground during Sanders' arrest.

Aurora police use an impoundment form that contains a liability release, under which an arrestee may agree to release police from liability for any damage to or theft of their car, and also to leave their car in place for no more than 24 hours. Sanders was not asked by any officer to sign that waiver. The police nevertheless decided to impound the Eclipse out of fear that its contents, attractive exterior, and after-market accessories would lead to a break-in, particularly because it was located in a high-crime area after dark. One of the officers testified that she believed that the car would be broken into within two hours if left in the parking lot. Aurora has an ordinance listing 21 separate grounds for impounding a vehicle, but the vehicle being located in a high-crime area or being a likely target for a crime are not among them.

Having decided to impound the Eclipse, the police conducted an inventory search before removing it from the lot. They discovered what they believed to be drugs, including methamphetamine and Ecstasy, and related paraphernalia. Sanders was indicted for possessing controlled substances with intent to distribute. She moved to suppress the fruits of the inventory search. The district court granted the motion because the police impounded the car for reasons not listed in Aurora's impound policy. The government filed a timely interlocutory appeal.

II

We review de novo the legal question of whether a seizure is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Serrato, 742 F.3d 461, 470 (10th Cir. 2014). The government bears the burden of proving that its impoundment of a vehicle satisfies the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Ibarra, 955 F.2d 1405, 1409 (10th Cir. 1992). Seizure of the Eclipse, the government asserts, was justified by the community-caretaking exception to the warrant requirement. See Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441, 93 S.Ct. 2523, 37 L.Ed.2d 706 (1973) (explaining how and why law enforcement officers act in a community-caretaking capacity). To ascertain whether it was lawful for police to impound a vehicle legally parked in a private lot, over objection from its driver and not pursuant to any written policy of the municipality, we address the contours of the community-caretaking exception under Supreme Court precedent, our circuit caselaw, and caselaw from other circuits.

A

The Supreme Court has addressed the constitutionality of community-caretaking impoundments in several cases. In South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 96 S.Ct. 3092, 49 L.Ed.2d 1000 (1976), the Court provided several examples of lawful grounds for impoundment:

In the interests of public safety and as part of what the Court has called community caretaking functions, automobiles are frequently taken into police custody. Vehicle accidents present one such occasion. To permit the uninterrupted flow of traffic and in some circumstances to preserve evidence, disabled or damaged vehicles will often be removed from the highways or streets at the behest of police engaged solely in caretaking and traffic-control activities. Police will also frequently remove and impound automobiles which violate parking ordinances and which thereby jeopardize both the public safety and the efficient movement of vehicular traffic. The authority of police to seize and remove from the streets vehicles impeding traffic or threatening public safety and convenience is beyond challenge.

Id. at 368-69 (quotation and citation omitted).1

Later, in Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367, 107 S.Ct. 738, 93 L.Ed.2d 739 (1987), a defendant argued that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated because Boulder, Colorado " departmental regulations gave the police officers discretion to choose between impounding his van and parking and locking it in a public parking place." Id. at 375. The Court rejected this argument because Opperman and another case, Illinois v. Lafayette, 462 U.S. 640, 103 S.Ct. 2605, 77 L.Ed.2d 65 (1983), allow for " the exercise of police discretion so long as that discretion is exercised according to standard criteria and on the basis of something other than suspicion of evidence of criminal activity." Bertine, 479 U.S....

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