United States v. Venezia, 2021 WL 1727603 (10th Cir. 2021)
Officers stopped Hunter Venezia for failure to signal. Venezia had driven out of a parking lot to a gas station across the street and then back to the motel parking lot. As the officers stopped him, the car was “legally parked,” was “not obstructing traffic” and did not pose “an imminent threat to public safety.” The license plates were improperly displayed and the car was registered to a name that Venezia did not recognize. He told officers he had just bought the car but had not been able to register it because of the holiday (the stop occurred on January 2).
Officers discovered Venezia had an outstanding warrant. They arrested Venezia and impounded the car. Venezia protested the impoundment. He told the officers that his brother was a guest at the motel. The officers did not ask whether the brother (actually a friend) could take possession of the car. Nor did they ask the motel staff whether the car could remain in the parking stall.
The officers conducted an inventory search of the car and discovered drugs, drug distribution paraphernalia, a gun holster and ammunition. Venezia was charged with possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. He asked the court to suppress the evidence found during the inventory, claiming there was no legitimate basis to impound the car. The trial court ruled the impoundment was conducted pursuant to a proper impound policy and that the impound was justified by a community-caretaking rationale.
The court quickly concluded there was no valid community-caretaking rationale to impound Venezia’s car and the evidence should have been excluded.
The court of appeals agreed the impound was consistent with a proper agency policy that “encouraged” an impound when “the driver of a vehicle does not have a valid driver’s license, the car is registered to another person, and the officer is unable to verify that the driver has permission to drive the vehicle.” However, prior 10th Circuit Court of Appeals rulings have clearly established that impounds must be justified by a “reasonable, non-pretextual community-caretaking rationale.” The court has articulated four factors to measure the sufficiency of non-pretextual community-caretaking reason, including “(1) whether the vehicle is on public or private property; (2) if on private property, whether the property owner has been consulted; (3) whether an alternative to impoundment exists (especially another person capable of driving the vehicle); (4) whether the vehicle is implicated in a crime; and (5) whether the vehicle’s owner and/or driver have consented to the impoundment.”
The court quickly concluded there was no valid community-caretaking rationale to impound Venezia’s car and the evidence should have been excluded. The car was safely parked on private property, the officers did not consult the property owner to check whether the car could remain, there was an easy alternative to impoundment (leaving it parked) and there was no connection between the car and the reason for the arrest (a warrant). Nonetheless, the court noted the officers were uncertain about ownership and Venezia did not have proof of ownership. Thus, his lack of consent was not determinative, and that single factor could weigh in favor of impoundment.
The court reversed the lower court and directed that Venezia’s conviction be vacated. One judge dissented. Though he agreed most factors weighed against an impound, he opined that the officers had a legitimate, non-pretextual reason to impound, considering the question of ownership and the claim that the car was parked in a high crime area where it might be vandalized.
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