The Police Towed The Suspects Car! Can They?

There is no data on how often the police tow a suspect’s car but every trial court judge knows it happens frequently. But the police do not have unbriddled  authority to two as this very recent case illustrates

From Fourth Amendment.com

Defendant’s car on his arrest would have been left on a motel parking lot, and the government didn’t show that this was a reasonable choice. Impoundment was thus unnecessary for community caretaking, and the denial of the motion to suppress is reversed. United States v. Venezia, 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 13076 (10th Cir. May 3, 2021):

Guided by the Supreme Court’s decisions in these cases, we clarified the precise standard for determining the constitutionality of a police-ordered impoundment on private property in Sanders: “when a vehicle is not impeding traffic or impairing public safety, impoundments are constitutional only if guided by both [1] standardized criteria and [2] a legitimate community-caretaking rationale.” 796 F.3d at 1243.

Here, Venezia argues the officers failed to comply with either requirement, rendering the impoundment unconstitutional for two independently sufficient reasons. The government disagrees. Reviewing de novo, we conclude that the impoundment was guided by standardized criteria, thus satisfying the first prong of Sanders. We also conclude, however, that the impoundment was not guided by a legitimate community-caretaking rationale, thus failing the second prong of Sanders.

. . .

6.Weighing the Factors

To summarize: the vehicle at issue was legally parked on private property, did not impede traffic, and did not pose a safety hazard. The private property owner did not object to the vehicle’s presence. None of these facts are in dispute. Rather, the parties dispute whether leaving Venezia’s vehicle in the motel parking lot would have unnecessarily exposed it to risk of theft or vandalism.

As discussed above, the vehicle in this case was not at unnecessary risk of theft or vandalism, and thus the officers lacked a reasonable community-caretaking rationale. The officers could not reasonably conclude that the vehicle would be unattended for a prolonged period of time based on their unsuccessful 9:00 P.M. attempt to call the vehicle’s registered owner. And the vehicle’s presence in the motel parking lot was no different than any other vehicle in the lot. For these two reasons, the officers’ decision to impound the vehicle was not guided by a reasonable community-caretaking rationale as required under the second Sanders prong. The officers could no more impound Venezia’s vehicle than they could impound any other vehicle at the motel, assuming its driver was unavailable and its registered owner could not be reached that night.

It is unnecessary to decide whether the asserted community-caretaking rationale was also “pretextual.” In fact, in this case, the evidence of pretext is scant. Yet, we held in Sanders that an asserted community-caretaking rationale must be both “reasonable” and “non-pretextual.” Id. at 1248. The officers in this case were attempting to rely on their standardized policy when impounding the vehicle. That policy, however, as exercised here, simply did not grant the officers authority to do what the Fourth Amendment forbids—to impound a vehicle absent a reasonable community-caretaking rationale.

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