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  • Jim Chapman

Community Caretaking and Inventory Searches

Updated: May 1, 2023

Author: Jim Chapman


In United States v. Anderson, 56 F.4th 748 (9th Cir. 2022), the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit was asked to review the United States District Court for the Central District of California’s denial of Defendant Jonathan Edward Charles Anderson’s motion to suppress. The District Court denied Anderson’s motion to suppress evidence of a handgun that law enforcement officers had found in his truck, rejecting Anderson’s arguments: (1) that the deputies lacked a valid “community caretaking purpose” when they conducted the search; (2) that the deputies violated California law when impounding his truck; and (3) that, even if there was a valid community caretaking purpose, the search was invalid because the deputies did not follow SBCSD procedures in conducting the search and they had an impermissible investigatory motive. The relevant facts are as follows.

At approximately 2:00 a.m., San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (“SBCSD”) Deputy Daniel Peterson noticed the license plate on Anderson’s truck was partially obscured in violation of California law, and so, he initiated a traffic stop. According to Deputy Peterson, after he activated his lights, Anderson abruptly turned onto a dead-end street and accelerated to the end of the road. Deputy Peterson called for backup and alerted dispatch that Anderson was “slow to stop” and “pulling into an apartment complex.” About 30 to 45 seconds after Deputy Peterson initiated the stop, Anderson pulled into the driveway of a home and got out of his truck.

Deputy Peterson believed that Anderson was attempting to flee and confronted him at gunpoint. Deputy Peterson instructed Anderson to turn around, to put his hands up, and to kneel down. Anderson (who disputes that he was trying to flee) complied with the request and repeatedly asked why he had been pulled over. Shortly thereafter, SBCSD Deputy Kyle Schuler arrived and handcuffed Anderson. Anderson told the deputies that he was parked in the driveway of “a friend” and that his license was expired. Anderson also stated that he did not see Deputy Peterson’s overhead lights and that he was not from the area. Deputy Peterson radioed dispatch at 2:05 a.m., and dispatch informed the deputies that Anderson had an expired license and was a career criminal.

The parties disputed what happened next. According to Anderson, Deputy Peterson began searching his truck within seconds of learning that he was a career criminal. Conversely, the deputies claimed that the search did not happen immediately, and Deputy Peterson only picked up Anderson’s keys from where he had thrown them in the lawn. At this point in the incident, Anderson can be heard on Deputy Peterson’s belt recording saying: “You can’t check my truck . . . why can you search my truck?” The deputies told Anderson that they were going to tow his truck because he did not have a valid license and that they needed to conduct an inventory search. The deputies refused Anderson’s request to have a friend come get his truck.

After detaining Anderson in the back of a patrol car, the deputies testified at the hearing on Anderson’s motion to suppress that, before they started the search, Deputy Schuler spoke to the owner of the home where Anderson parked to confirm whether he knew Anderson. Anderson claimed that the deputies did not talk to the homeowner until after they had completed the inventory search. Regardless, there was no dispute that the homeowner did not know Anderson and wanted Anderson’s truck removed from his driveway.

During the inventory search, Deputy Peterson found a loaded handgun under the driver’s seat and arrested Anderson for being a felon in possession of a firearm. The entire incident from when Deputy Peterson noticed Anderson’s obscured license plate to when he called in the gun to dispatch lasted approximately seven minutes. Deputy Schuler stayed at the scene after Anderson was taken to jail to complete the requirements of the SBCSD Manual, which provides a standard administrative procedure for an inventory search.

In complying with these requirements, Deputy Schuler completed most of the information required by the CHP 180 form, including checking off boxes to show the presence of two radios and a firearm in the car, although he did not document other property in the car, such as two pairs of sunglasses, a watch, a box of tools, and a bottle of cologne. Deputy Schuler also filled out the portion of the CHP 180 form for indicating existing scratches, dents, and damage to the truck. As required by the SBCSD Manual, Deputy Schuler included the tow truck driver’s signature and time of arrival on the CHP 180 form. The deputies submitted the form for processing the same day. In addition to filling out the form, the deputies took photographs of property found inside the car, including a speaker, iPhone cord, and tools, and also completed a police report documenting that a compact disc, gun, holster, and ammunition were found in the car.

Thereafter, Anderson was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of federal law. As noted above, Anderson made three arguments in support of his motion to suppress. After the suppression hearing during which the deputies and the homeowner testified, the District Court held that the search was proper and denied Anderson’s motion. The District Court found that Anderson did not have a valid driver’s license and that the homeowner did not know Anderson or want the truck on his property. Regarding whether there was a valid community caretaking purpose for impounding the truck, the key question was whether or not the deputies searched the car before or after they talked to the homeowner and learned that he did not know Anderson. The District Court noted that there were a lot of discrepancies and inconsistencies in the testimony, but based on the credibility and looking at what was speculative and what was the evidence, the District Court found that the record established that the deputies did talk to the homeowner before they searched the car. The District Court did not address whether the deputies complied with California law or SBCSD policy or whether they had an impermissible motive for the search. Thereafter, Anderson entered a conditional guilty plea reserving his right to appeal the suppression order, and the District Court sentenced him to 77 months’ imprisonment and three years’ supervised release.

The Ninth Circuit began its consideration of Anderson’s appeal by noting that the Fourth Amendment protects the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures and provides that no warrants shall issue except upon probable cause. The Fourth Amendment’s essential purpose is to impose a standard of reasonableness upon the exercise of discretion by government officials, including law enforcement agents, in order to safeguard the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions. The Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness standard is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application. Instead, each case must be decided on its own facts.

As a general rule, the government must obtain a warrant based on probable cause in order to conduct a search, but there are exceptions to this requirement. The United States Supreme Court evaluates the reasonableness of a warrantless search by balancing its intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against its promotion of legitimate governmental interests.

One well-defined exception to the warrant requirement is the inventory search. This exception arises under the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement for seizure of property. Under the community caretaking exception, police officers may impound vehicles that jeopardize public safety and the efficient movement of vehicular traffic. The reasonableness of the impoundment depends on whether the impoundment fits within the authority of police to seize and remove from the streets vehicles impeding traffic or threatening public safety and convenience. Impoundment serves some community caretaking purpose if a vehicle is parked illegally, poses a safety hazard, or is vulnerable to vandalism or theft. Impoundment is also justified where a vehicle is parked in the middle of the street, left in a public parking lot without anyone to retrieve it, or totaled and lying in a ditch.

Conversely, an officer cannot reasonably order an impoundment in situations where the location of the vehicle does not create any need for the police to protect the vehicle or to avoid a hazard to other drivers. One such location is where a vehicle is parked in its owner’s driveway, even though the owner drove without a valid driver’s license. Nor is there a valid community caretaking purpose justifying impoundment where a vehicle is legally parked in a residential neighborhood and there is no evidence that it would be susceptible to theft or vandalism.

Furthermore, once a vehicle has been legally impounded, the police may conduct an inventory search, as long as it conforms to the standard procedures of the local police department. An inventory search of a vehicle is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment because the government’s legitimate interests in conducting such a search outweigh the individual’s privacy interests in the contents of his car. According to the Supreme Court, the expectation of privacy with respect to one’s automobile is significantly less than that relating to one’s home or office. Weighed against this lowered expectation of privacy, the government has a legitimate interest in the protection of the owner’s property while it remains in police custody; the protection of the police against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property; and the protection of the police from potential danger.

Because inventory searches are non-criminal in nature, they need not be justified by probable cause, which is peculiarly related to criminal investigations, not routine, noncriminal procedures. The probable-cause approach is unhelpful when analysis centers upon the reasonableness of routine administrative caretaking functions, particularly when no claim is made that the protective procedures are a subterfuge for criminal investigations.

A court may impose safeguards on a warrantless search to assure that the individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy is not subject to the discretion of the official in the field. In the context of an inventory search, the individual’s privacy interest is protected by routine administrative procedures that limit an officer’s discretion in conducting the search. Even if the officers have some discretion in conducting an inventory search, the search remains reasonable 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. While inventory procedures do not define Constitutional rights, they do assist courts to determine whether an inventory search is legitimate, as opposed to pretextual because a search that materially deviates from established procedure may raise the inference that it was merely an excuse to rummage for evidence.

Finally, for purposes of the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness test, the issue is whether the inventory search is pretextual, not whether it fails to achieve full compliance with the administrative procedures. Reasonable police regulations relating to inventory procedures administered in good faith satisfy the Fourth Amendment even if the police implementation of standardized inventorying procedure is “somewhat slipshod.” Generally, administrative errors alone do not invalidate inventory searches, and the failure to complete an inventory form or other comparable administrative errors does not invalidate the search if there is no evidence that the officers were rummaging for evidence.

An otherwise reasonable inventory search is not invalid merely because the police have a mixed motive for the search. When an inventory search would have occurred in the absence of a motive to search for evidence of a crime, the mere presence of a criminal investigatory motive or dual motive—one valid, and one impermissible—does not render an inventory search invalid. So long as the police did not act in bad faith or for the sole purpose of investigation, an inventory search is valid. In sum, once the government has established that the vehicle in question was impounded for a valid community caretaking purpose, an inventory search does not violate an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights if: (1) it is conducted pursuant to a standard policy (even if compliance with the policy is less than perfect); and (2) it is performed in good faith (meaning it is not conducted.

Here, the Ninth Circuit addressed two questions: (1) whether the government impounded the vehicle in this case pursuant to a valid community caretaking purpose and (2) whether the inventory search was valid. The Ninth Circuit concluded that the government had satisfied its burden and that the District Court did not err in denying Anderson’s motion to suppress.

As for the impoundment issue, the Ninth Circuit stated that the deputies needed an objectively reasonable belief that Anderson’s truck was parked illegally, posed a safety hazard, or was vulnerable to vandalism or theft. The Ninth Circuit concluded that the deputies had such a belief because, as the District Court found, Anderson parked his truck in a private driveway, and the homeowner wanted the car off the property because the homeowner did not know Anderson. Additionally, there was no one available to move Anderson’s truck because Anderson did not have a valid driver’s license; he had no passengers with him; and he told the deputies that he was not from the area where he was stopped. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit held that the District Court did not err in concluding that the government had established that a valid community caretaking purpose existed for impounding and inventorying Anderson’s truck before the search was conducted.

The Ninth Circuit then turned to the issue of the inventory search. Anderson argued that the deputies’ inventory search was invalid because they failed to comply with the SBCSD’s standardized inventory search procedures. The Ninth Circuit disagreed because the evidence showed that the inventory search of Anderson’s car was conducted pursuant to a standard policy, was performed in good faith, and was not performed solely for the purpose of obtaining evidence of a crime. As such, the Ninth Circuit determined that the government’s interest in protection of property and protection of the police outweighed Anderson’s expectation of privacy in the contents of his car, and the search was reasonable for Fourth Amendment purposes. In sum, the Ninth Circuit opined that, whereas here, an inventory search is conducted pursuant to a standard procedure and where there is no evidence that the inventory search was conducted solely for the purpose of finding evidence of a crime, the search does not violate the Fourth Amendment. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s denial of Anderson’s motion to suppress.

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