Impound Leads to Discovery of Guns and Drugs

by | April 26, 2021

United States v. Trujillo, 2021 WL 1257759 (10th Cir. 2021)

An officer tried to stop Gabriel Trujillo for driving well over the speed limit. Trujillo led the officer on a chase for nearly a mile-and-a-half, finally stopping at the entryway of a gated community. The officer and his backup called Trujillo out of the car and back to their patrol cars, where they arrested and handcuffed him. Trujillo was wearing a ballistic vest.

When the officer approached Trujillo’s car, he saw a handgun tucked between the driver’s seat and the center console and another handgun and rifle case on the back seat. Trujillo claimed the vest and guns were to protect him from his ex-girlfriend. He explained that he waited for a safe place to pull over.

Consistent with the agency policy, the officer decided to impound and tow the car. The car’s location created a danger to other drivers and was parked in an area with a high incidence of auto burglaries and thefts. The officer was concerned someone would break into the car and take the guns. The officer called for a tow truck and began an inventory as dictated by agency policy. In addition to the two handguns the officer saw from outside the car, he found an assault rifle inside the case on the back seat and an AK-47 rifle underneath. Each gun was loaded. Inside a backpack on the rear seat, the officer found ammunition, a shotgun-shell box containing four bundles of U.S. currency, and four balls of methamphetamine, totaling half a pound.

Trujillo asked the court to suppress the evidence on the basis that the impoundment itself was improper. He alleged the agency policy allowed impoundment in every case where a driver is arrested, which made the policy unreasonable. He argued the officer failed to consider alternatives to towing. The trial court agreed and suppressed the evidence.

The officer was entitled to search the car, not only on the basis of the impoundment and inventory per policy, but also to secure any additional firearms.

The prosecution appealed and the appellate court reversed, holding the impound and inventory were proper on two separate grounds. The court held the impoundment was proper and, if the impoundment was proper, the inventory search was lawful. The court cited the black-letter Supreme Court decision in South Dakota v. Opperman (428 U.S. 364 (1976)): “Police will also frequently remove and impound automobiles which violate parking ordinances and which thereby jeopardize both the public safety and the efficient movement of vehicular traffic. The authority of police to seize and remove from the streets vehicles impeding traffic or threatening public safety and convenience is beyond challenge.”

The court also held that the observation of the guns provided an independent basis for searching the car: “The presence of firearms in an unoccupied vehicle under police control provides an additional ground for searching the vehicle, even when the vehicle itself is not a cause for concern at the time of the search.” The officer was entitled to search the car, not only on the basis of the impoundment and inventory per policy, but also to secure any additional firearms.

In response to Trujillo’s argument that the officer didn’t offer him the chance to have someone come and take possession of the car, the court noted, “Officers are not required to accommodate every request to avoid impoundment of a vehicle that is impeding traffic…Given the hazard presented by the Mustang, the officers’ decision to impound the vehicle was reasonable. There was no licensed passenger. Trujillo lacked registration documents. And 2:30 a.m. was not a good time of day to look for help from friends. The deputies were not required to allow Trujillo to call someone to come pick up the Mustang and then, assuming he was successful, wait around for the new driver to arrive.”

This blog was featured in our Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys.

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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