Miranda v. City of Cornelius

Citation429 F.3d 858
Decision Date17 November 2005
Docket NumberNo. 04-35940.,04-35940.
PartiesJorge MIRANDA; Irene Miranda, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. CITY OF CORNELIUS; Acme Towing, Inc., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)

Shelly Latin, Oregon Legal Services Corp., Pendleton, OR, (argued); Spencer M. Neal, Oregon Law Center, Portland, OR, for the plaintiffs-appellants.

Gerald L. Warren, Salem, OR, for the defendants-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Oregon; Ann L. Aiken, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-04-00241-AA.

Before: FISHER, GOULD, BEA, Circuit Judges.

GOULD, Circuit Judge:

We consider a constitutional challenge to the impoundment of a vehicle from the owners' driveway after a police officer observed the husband teaching his unlicensed wife how to drive. Plaintiffs Mr. Jorge and Mrs. Irene Miranda ("Plaintiffs") appeal the district court's grant of summary judgment for Defendants City of Cornelius (the "City") and Acme Towing, Inc. (collectively "Defendants") and the denial of Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment on Plaintiffs' claim that Defendants' impoundment of their vehicle violated their constitutional rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Plaintiffs allege that the impoundment was an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment because it conflicts with the principles of the community caretaking doctrine. Generally, the community caretaking doctrine allows the police to impound where necessary to ensure that the location or operation of vehicles does not jeopardize the public safety. We hold that, under the special circumstances of this case, the impoundment of Plaintiffs' vehicle was an unreasonable seizure not justified by the community caretaking doctrine because the police have no duty to protect a vehicle parked on the owners' property and there was no reason to believe that impoundment would prevent any threat to public safety from its unlawful operation beyond the brief period during which the car was impounded. We reverse the district court's grant of summary judgment, and we remand for further proceedings.


On April 10, 2003, Mrs. Miranda slowly drove the Ford Aerostar van of her husband, Mr. Miranda, around the neighborhood as her husband taught her how to drive. Although Mr. Miranda is a licensed and insured driver with valid registration of the vehicle, Mrs. Miranda did not have a driver's license. Officer John Calvert, a police officer with the City, noticed that Mrs. Miranda was driving poorly and at a speed of about ten miles per hour, and suspected that she was impaired or improperly licensed. Officer Calvert activated the overhead lights on his patrol car and followed the vehicle until Mrs. Miranda pulled into the driveway in front of the Mirandas' home.

After learning that Mrs. Miranda did not have a driver's license, Officer Calvert cited her for operating a vehicle without a license and also cited Mr. Miranda for permitting the operation of the vehicle by an unlicensed driver. Officer Calvert told the Mirandas that their vehicle would be impounded. In their declarations opposing summary judgment, Plaintiffs submitted evidence that they had trouble understanding Officer Calvert because they have limited English skills and did not know that their vehicle was to be impounded.

A city ordinance, authorized by state statute, allows an officer to tow a vehicle, without prior notice, if the officer has a reasonable belief that the driver is operating it without a valid operator's license. Cornelius City Code § 7.455; Or.Rev.Stat. § 809.720. Officer Calvert waited until the tow truck from Defendant Acme Towing, Inc. removed the vehicle from the Mirandas' driveway, which occurred about thirty minutes after the stop.

On the morning of the next day, April 11, Mr. Miranda appeared at the police station to pay an administrative fee. He retrieved his vehicle at the impoundment lot after paying additional towing charges and impound fees. Mr. Miranda stated in his declaration that he lost a day's pay from taking this time to retrieve his vehicle. Also on April 11, Ms. Dolley Mack, a police services aide with the City, mailed to Plaintiffs a Notice of Towed Vehicle report, which informed them of their right to contest the tow by mailing a request to the police department within ten days of the tow. On April 15, Mr. Miranda wrote a letter in Spanish to the police department complaining about the tow. The City submitted into evidence the declaration of Ms. Mack stating that "to the best of [her] knowledge, no request for hearing was ever received." Mr. Miranda then received the City's notice, but he did not respond to it. He later went to the City Hall and, as he described it, "spoke with a woman about the tow who told him that he had no basis to complain about the tow." On May 6, Plaintiffs appeared at municipal court and pled guilty to the traffic violations. Plaintiffs did not contest the impoundment during this hearing, and the court imposed no fines on them.

In their complaint brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Plaintiffs alleged that the impoundment was an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment as incorporated in the Fourteenth Amendment and that they were deprived of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Plaintiffs also sought a declaratory judgment that the city ordinance, Cornelius City Code § 7.455, is unconstitutional. The district court held that the seizure complied with the Fourth Amendment because Plaintiffs lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in their parked car on their unenclosed driveway.2 On the issue of due process, the district court held that Plaintiffs did not have a right to a hearing before the tow and that they were not denied an opportunity to contest the seizure in a post-tow hearing. The district court granted Defendants' motion for summary judgment and denied Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment. Plaintiffs appeal this order. Plaintiffs request further that summary judgment be entered in their favor on the issues of unreasonable seizure and deprivation of due process, or, alternatively, that the case be remanded for a trial on the issue of whether they were improperly denied an opportunity for a timely post-deprivation hearing.


The impoundment of an automobile is a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. A seizure results if "there is some meaningful interference with an individual's possessory interests in that property." Soldal v. Cook County, 506 U.S. 56, 61, 113 S.Ct. 538, 121 L.Ed.2d 450 (1992). The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable interferences in property interests regardless of whether there is an invasion of privacy. Id. at 62-64, 113 S.Ct. 538 ("Although lacking a privacy component, the property rights in both instances nonetheless were not disregarded, but rather were afforded Fourth Amendment protection.").

"A seizure conducted without a warrant is per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment — subject only to a few specifically established and well delineated exceptions. The burden is on the Government to persuade the district court that a seizure comes under one of a few specifically established exceptions to the warrant requirement." United States v. Hawkins, 249 F.3d 867, 872 (9th Cir.2001) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

Defendants acknowledge that the only exception applicable to this impoundment is the "community caretaking" doctrine, but they assert, in light of Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318, 121 S.Ct. 1536, 149 L.Ed.2d 549 (2001), that we cannot second-guess an officer's decision to impound so long as the officer had probable cause to believe that the driver violated a vehicle regulation that authorizes the impoundment. Plaintiffs counter that the reasonableness of an impoundment requires more than just the existence of probable cause, but that the impoundment itself must comply with the principles of the "community caretaking" doctrine.


In assessing these claims, we first determine whether probable cause to believe that the driver committed a traffic violation is sufficient justification by itself to make the impoundment of the vehicle reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

In Atwater, the Supreme Court held that an officer is deemed to act reasonably under the Fourth Amendment in making a warrantless arrest if the officer had probable cause to believe that the arrested person violated a criminal statute. Id. at 354, 121 S.Ct. 1536("If an officer has probable cause to believe that an individual has committed even a very minor criminal offense in his presence, he may, without violating the Fourth Amendment, arrest the offender."). The Supreme Court in Atwater relied on the historical discretion allowed a police officer to make a warrantless arrest when supported by probable cause to believe that the suspect committed a crime. See id. at 327-45, 121 S.Ct. 1536. In applying this bright-line rule, the Court distinguished other situations where the reasonableness of a search or seizure was determined by "balancing the need to search (or seize) against the invasion which the search (or seizure) entails." Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). "Terry certainly supports a more finely tuned approach to the Fourth Amendment when police act without the traditional justification that either a warrant (in the case of a search) or probable cause (in the case of arrest) provides; but at least in the absence of `extraordinary' circumstances, there is no comparable cause for finicking when police act with such justification." Atwater, 532 U.S. at 347, 121 S.Ct. 1536, n. 16 (citation omitted).

In sharp contrast to the broad discretion granted in Atwater, the Supreme Court in allowing the impoundment and search of vehicles under the...

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