V-1 Oil Co. v. Means

Citation94 F.3d 1420
Decision Date26 August 1996
Docket NumberV-1,No. 95-8057,95-8057
PartiesOIL COMPANY, a corporation, and, William Richards, Plaintiffs/Appellants, v. Roger MEANS, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Tenth Circuit

F.M. Andrews, Jr. (Robert O. Anderson with him on the brief), of Andrews and Anderson, P.C., Riverton, Wyoming, for appellants.

Terry L. Armitage, Cheyenne, Wyoming, for appellee.

Before SEYMOUR, Chief Judge, HOLLOWAY and BRISCOE, Circuit Judges.

BRISCOE, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiffs V-1 Oil Company and William Richards sued Sergeant Roger Means of the Wyoming Highway Patrol under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging Means violated their Fourth Amendment rights by stopping a V-1 propane truck driven by Richards and ordering Richards to drive the truck to a port of entry for a safety inspection. Means moved for summary judgment and the district court granted the motion, concluding that Means was entitled to qualified immunity because the stop and inspection did not violate clearly established law. Although we do not agree with the district court's conclusion that Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 31-18-701(c) 1 applies to these facts, or that this inspection was not within the ambit of the Fourth Amendment, we affirm on other grounds the district court's conclusion that Means was entitled to qualified immunity because the stop and inspection did not violate clearly established law.

Means stopped the V-1 truck at approximately 8:47 a.m. on May 5, 1994, because the front placard required by Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 31-5-959(b) 2 to be on all vehicles transporting hazardous materials was peeling and becoming hard to read, contrary to 49 C.F.R. § 172.516(c) 3. This initial stop took ten or fifteen minutes. Means told Richards the truck was looking a "little rough" and that he wanted to perform a safety inspection of the truck. At Means' direction, Richards drove the truck three to five miles to a port of entry. Means testified it was safer to inspect the truck at the port of entry than on the roadside. He also testified he believed he had authority to make random safety inspections without cause and to order a driver to drive a truck to a port of entry for a safety inspection, but he could not cite any specific statutes for that authority.

Means inspected the truck at the port of entry by walking around it and by weighing it, but he did not open any truck doors. The inspection report revealed violations of safety regulations--placard peeling, markings peeling on all sides of the truck, no battery cover, broken windshield, inoperable left side rear marker lamp, and inoperable rear I.D. lamps. Means issued a citation for the peeling placard. Richards alleged the process took about two and a half hours, but Means testified it took about an hour. Means' inspection report, which Richards signed, stated the inspection began at 9:15 a.m. and ended at 9:55 a.m. The citation was later dismissed at Means' request because he had not put the same date on the citation and the inspection report, and because photographs taken of the truck did not develop.

The district court concluded Means had probable cause to stop the truck and arrest the driver for the placard violation, and that Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 31-18-701(c) authorized Means to order the driver to drive the truck to the port of entry for a safety inspection. The court rejected plaintiffs' argument that the warrantless inspection violated Fourth Amendment rights, concluding the inspection was not a search because it was limited to the exterior of the truck and a warrant was unnecessary.

Plaintiffs do not challenge the legality of the initial stop, but contend Means lacked authority to order Richards to drive the truck to the port of entry to conduct a warrantless safety inspection, and that this action violated their clearly established rights under the Fourth Amendment. We disagree.

We review a grant of summary judgment de novo, applying the same standard used by the district court under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). See Thompson v. City of Lawrence, 58 F.3d 1511, 1515 (10th Cir.1995). We analyze qualified immunity claims decided on summary judgment under the framework set out in Woodward v. City of Worland, 977 F.2d 1392, 1396-97 (10th Cir.1992), cert. denied 509 U.S. 923, 113 S.Ct. 3038, 125 L.Ed.2d 724 (1993). When a defendant raises the defense of qualified immunity, plaintiff must show the law was clearly established when the alleged violation occurred and must come forward with facts or allegations sufficient to show the official violated the clearly established law. Defendant bears the normal summary judgment burden of showing no material facts that would defeat the qualified immunity defense remain in dispute. Thompson, 58 F.3d at 1515. For the law to be clearly established, there must be a Supreme Court or Tenth Circuit decision on point, or the clearly established weight of authority from other courts must be as the plaintiff maintains. Woodward, 977 F.2d at 1397.

The contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right. This is not to say that an official action is protected by qualified immunity unless the very action in question has previously been held unlawful, but it is to say that in the light of preexisting law the unlawfulness must be apparent.

Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 3039, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987).

We conclude plaintiffs failed to establish that Means' actions violated clearly established law. It was not clearly established that a warrantless safety inspection of a commercial truck carrying hazardous material by a highway patrol officer at a port of entry, after a valid traffic stop on a nearby road, violated the Fourth Amendment.

We reject plaintiffs' argument that Means lacked any statutory authority for the safety inspection. Plaintiffs assert that Means concedes he relied only on Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 31-18-701(c) for his authority to conduct warrantless safety inspections, but we find no such concession in the record. It is true that was the only statute relied on by the district court for Means' authority to require Richards to travel to the nearest check station for a safety inspection. It is also true that § 31-18-701(c) does not authorize a highway patrol officer to order a driver to drive a truck to a department check station for a safety inspection. The statute authorizes officers to order a driver to drive a truck to a check station only for inspection of the contents to determine if they match the bills of lading.

However, we may affirm the judgment of the district court on any grounds for which there is a record sufficient to permit conclusions of law, even grounds not relied upon by the district court. See Medina v. City and County of Denver, 960 F.2d 1493, 1495 n. 1 (10th Cir.1992).

Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 31-18-301(c) authorizes highway patrol officers and other agents and employees of the state Department of Transportation to inspect commercial vehicles operated by motor carriers but, under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 31-18-103(a)(xii), it is inapplicable to private motor carriers operating vehicles with a gross vehicle weight of 26,000 pounds or less. V-1 is a private motor carrier as defined by Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 31-18-101(a)(x)(D), and the record shows the V-1 truck weighed 24,460 pounds. However, § 31-18-103(a)(xii) also provides that all private motor carriers must comply with the hazardous materials regulations contained in Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 31-18-303. That section requires the state transportation department to adopt rules and regulations consistent with comparable regulations of the United States Department of Transportation, and the department has done so. See Wyoming Environmental, Health and Safety Regulations, Transportation Department; Motor Carriers, Chapter I, appendix, § 27(b) and (c) (ERM Computer Services, Inc., 1996).

The federal regulations governing transportation of hazardous materials by motor carrier apply to private carriers. 49 C.F.R. § 177.800(a). 49 C.F.R. § 177.804 requires motor carriers transporting hazardous materials to comply with the general federal motor carrier safety regulations, 49 C.F.R. §§ 390 through 397. 49 C.F.R. § 390.5 defines any motor vehicle transporting hazardous materials as a commercial vehicle subject to the general safety regulations. 49 C.F.R. § 393 sets safety standards for truck equipment.

49 C.F.R. § 396.9 specifically authorizes special agents of the Federal Highway Administration to conduct safety inspections of motor carriers' vehicles in operation. Although Means was not a special agent of the Federal Highway Administration, state regulations give the same authority to highway patrol officers. Wyoming Environmental, Health and Safety Regulations, Transportation Department; Motor Carriers, Chapter I, appendix, § 27, part 1(e), provides that references in the federal regulations "to such federal persons and entities as 'Secretary,' 'Federal Highway Administrator' or 'Administration,' 'Regional Director,' 'District Director' or other similar references shall mean the Wyoming Department of Transportation, its employees, and its duly designated agents, including the Wyoming Highway Patrol enforcing these Rules pursuant to W.S. 37-8-501(b) [now Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 31-18-701]." By that regulation, Wyoming highway patrol officers have the same authority to conduct truck safety inspections that special agents of the Federal Highway Administration have under 49 C.F.R. § 396.9.

We must determine whether, in light of the statutes and regulations authorizing truck inspections, Means' actions violated clearly established Fourth Amendment rights. Means argues a search warrant was not required because the safety inspection was limited to the exterior of the vehicle and was not a search. See New York v. Class, 475 U.S. 106, 114-115, 106 S.Ct. 960, 966-67, 89 L.Ed.2d 81 (1986); United States v. Rascon-Ortiz, 994...

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