Searching for Evidence or Community Caretaking?

Handgun SearchUnited States v. McKinnon, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 7806, May 8, 2012

An officer stopped the car Appellant was driving because it had an expired registration sticker.  The officer arrested Appellant after he could not produce a valid driver’s license.  Based on the Houston Police Department’s (HPD) towing policy, the officer ordered the car to be towed.  During the “inventory search,” the officer found a handgun under the driver’s seat.  At trial, Appellant moved to suppress the handgun as being the fruit on an unlawful search in violation of the Fourth Amendment, arguing that:

[the officer’s] inventory search violated his Fourth Amendment rights because (1) the inventory search was merely a pretext for searching for evidence related to the burglaries that had recently taken place in the neighborhood where McKinnon was stopped; and (2) the inventory search was conducted pursuant to a policy that provided HPD officers with impermissible discretion in deciding when to tow a vehicle.

The trial court denied the motion.

The Supreme Court has recognized that the police may seize vehicles without a warrant in furtherance of their “community caretaking” function.  This usually occurs when officers impound damaged or disabled vehicles or vehicles that violate parking ordinances or impede the flow of traffic.  As long as an officer’s decision to impound a vehicle for community caretaking purposes is reasonable, it will not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Here, the court held that the officer’s decision to have the car towed was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.  It was undisputed that the neighborhood in which the stop occurred had experienced a series of burglaries.  Although these were house burglaries, there was nothing to suggest that the vehicle would not have been stolen or vandalized if left parked and locked at the scene.  By impounding the car, the officer ensured that it was not left on a public street where it could have become a nuisance or where it could have been stolen or damaged.

In addition, while one of the passengers possessed a valid driver’s license, the car’s registration sticker was expired, so it could not have been lawfully driven away from the scene.  Finally, the HPD tow policy provides for the towing of vehicles when the owner is not able to designate a tow operator to remove the vehicle and no other authorized person is present.  The registered owner of the vehicle was not present to designate a tow operator and there was nothing to suggest that she had authorized either of the two passengers, who were present, to operate her car.

The Court further held that HPD’s inventory search policy was constitutional.  By its clear terms, the policy is consistent with preserving the property of the vehicle’s owner while ensuring that the police protect themselves against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property and protecting the police from danger.

Community caretaking…Hmmm.  Seems like alot of things could fit under that title.  I suppose that is the point.