Court Excludes Evidence When Police Misuse Community Caretaking Exception to Search a Car

When a driver is arrested, his or her car is often towed and stored by police under the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment.  As part of the impound procedure, police are permitted to conduct an inventory search of the vehicle.  The Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable search and seizure by the government.  The “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment allows police to impound an arrestee’s vehicle if it jeopardizes public safety and the efficient movement of vehicular traffic, or if the vehicle would be vulnerable to vandalism or theft.  The “community caretaking” exception gives law enforcement wide latitude to impound vehicles.  However, in this case, the 9th District Court of Appeals demonstrated that they are willing to put a limit on police discretion and interpretation.

On March 25, 2009, detectives from the Los Angeles Police Department were conducting surveillance on a house in Pacoima, California as part of an ongoing narcotics investigation.  In the early afternoon, the detectives watched as an unidentified man left the target house carrying a large white box.  He got into his truck and drove away, with detectives covertly following him.  They watched as the man pulled over, got out of his truck, and handed the white box to another man in a GMC Envoy.  The man in the Envoy was later identified as Jesus Cervantes.

The detectives followed Cervantes throughout the afternoon and into the evening.  They watched as he visited another house and as he went to a liquor store to make a purchase.  Eventually, the detectives asked uniformed police officers to find a reason to pull over Cervantes’ car.  Cervantes failed to stop completely behind the limit line at an intersection, and officers pulled him over.  When asked for his driver license, Cervantes told the officers he had been arrested previously for driving under the influence and that his license had been taken away.  The officers conducted a records check and found no driver license information under Cervantes’ name.  Under the belief Cervantes was driving on a suspended driver license, the officers decided to impound his car.  In keeping with their standard procedures, they conducted an inventory search of the car.  During that search, they found a large white box that contained two kilograms of cocaine.  Cervantes was arrested for the cocaine and booked.  Once booked, a check of DMV records revealed that Cervantes actually had a valid license.

The defense filed a motion to exclude the cocaine from evidence, alleging the police had improperly searched the vehicle.  The prosecution argued the police did have the right to search the car, and they provided two separate justifications for the search.  First, they contended the police had sufficient probable cause to search the car under the “automobile exception” to the Fourth Amendment.  The “automobile exception” essentially allows police to search a car without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe contraband or evidence is in the car.  Alternatively, the prosecution contended the police properly conducted an inventory search after impounding the vehicle under the “community caretaking” exception.  The trial court accepted both of the prosecution’s arguments and denied the defense motion.  The defense appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals first held that police did not have sufficient probable cause to justify the search of Cervantes’ vehicle under the “automobile exception”, leaving only the “community caretaking” exception to justify the search.  In considering whether the “community caretaking” exception applied to this case, the Court noted that neither of the officers involved in the impound and search of the vehicle offered any testimony that Cervantes’ vehicle was illegally parked, posed a safety hazard, or was vulnerable to vandalism or theft.  In fact, when signaled to pull over by the police, Cervantes pulled his car to the curb and parked it legally in a residential neighborhood.  The Court found no evidence supporting the application of the “community caretaking” exception in this case.  They quoted the United States Supreme Court in Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1 (1990) who held “an inventory search must not be a ruse for a general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence.”

Based on their analysis, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the trial court to deny the defense motion.  Because the box containing the cocaine was found during a search which they found to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment, it was “fruit of the poisonous tree” and therefore inadmissible as evidence against Cervantes.  While the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment still allows for broad interpretation, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has demonstrated that they are willing to put limits on how it is used by police.

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