United States v. Chavez, 2021 WL 191660 (10th Cir. 2021)
A deputy saw Manuel Chavez run a stop sign and signaled for him to stop. Chavez slowly drove to a gas station, stopping near a gas pump. The deputy saw Chavez roll his shoulder forward as if reaching for something under his car seat, noticed Chavez watching him in the rearview mirror and saw an unrestrained dog in the car. Concerned for his safety, the deputy proceeded slowly, pausing momentarily after reaching the car and touching its trunk. Chavez suddenly sped away.
Chavez ran a red light, exceeding the speed limit, and risked colliding with an ambulance as he swerved between lanes. The deputy again activated his emergency lights. Though he temporarily lost sight of Chavez, the deputy soon saw dust hovering above an intersecting dirt road and turned down it.
The deputy saw, through more raised dust, a trailer, an RV and Chavez’s car with its headlights and taillights still on. The car was sitting a few feet from the trailer. Seeing multiple hiding spots in the open area, the deputy waited until the dust settled and then approached the car with his gun drawn. Seeing Chavez was gone, the deputy called for backup. Within three minutes, other deputies and officers arrived and began setting up a perimeter.
Another deputy noticed the car was rocking slightly, the ignition was still on and the RPMs were “fluctuating.” He opened the driver-side door, put his foot on the brake and shifted the car into park. As the deputy backed out of the car, he saw a “rubber grip which appeared to be a handgun in a black holster” on the driver-side floorboard.
Just then, a man came out of the RV and asked what was happening. He told the deputies the car belonged to the man and woman who lived in the trailer, but he did not know their names. He also recognized the dog inside the car as one “usually here in the yard.” Other deputies called out from a corner of the property that they’d found Chavez.
The deputy decided to impound the car and called for a tow truck. An assisting deputy began an inventory of the car, photographing the revolver sticking out from under the seat. Chavez’s girlfriend came out from the trailer and identified herself as the owner of the car but denied ownership or any knowledge of the gun. The deputies decided to release the car to her, but to seize the gun. Chavez was subsequently discovered to be a felon and was charged with possession of a gun by a felon.
Chavez challenged the seizure of the revolver. The trial court ruled the seizure of the gun was proper under the inventory doctrine. Even though the impound was halted, the deputy had reasonably believed the car would be impounded. However, the trial court did not accept the prosecution’s argument that Chavez had abandoned the gun when he fled from the car.
Nor did the court agree with the prosecution on the claim the gun could have been seized because it was in plain view. To satisfy the plain view doctrine, three factors must be satisfied (Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128 (1990)). A plainly visible item may be seized when:
- The seizing officer is lawfully present and lawfully able to access the item without violating the Fourth Amendment. If an officer is present in a location serving an arrest or search warrant, conducting an inventory, conducting a traffic or other investigatory stop, or has been admitted by consent or invitation, the officer is not violating the Fourth Amendment.
- Second, the item is in “plain view.”
- Third, the incriminating nature of the item is immediately apparent.
Even though the gun was plainly visible to the deputies, when they saw it, they had no probable cause to believe Chavez had committed a gun crime. Therefore, the gun wasn’t immediately evident as contraband.
One can easily relate to the deputies’ desire to seize the gun after a short, dangerous pursuit, especially considering Chavez was likely reaching for the gun when he leaned forward during the deputy’s initial approach.
The appellate court reversed the denial of Chavez’s motion to suppress the gun evidence. The court held that Chavez maintained an expectation of privacy in the car, even though it was not his car and he had fled on foot. The court reasoned that Chavez had “left the car at the end of a long private, dirt road, just outside his trailer, with doors shut and his dog still inside,” suggesting a different result might have been obtained if the car had been abandoned on the roadside or on public property.
Nor could the inventory doctrine justify the seizure of the gun. The sheriff’s office policy stated, “Vehicles will not be towed from private property unless needed as evidence, or pursuant to a lawful court order.” Thus, the court held, “Without a permissible reason for impounding a car, nothing justified the deputies’ decision to inventory the car’s contents.”
Finally, the prosecution argued the community caretaking doctrine permitted the deputies to seize the gun, rather than leave it in a car owned by the girlfriend who disclaimed ownership of the gun. The court again cited the location of the car in their rejection of the community caretaking argument. “Here, the car was lawfully parked at the end of a long, private, dirt road outside an isolated trailer. We cannot ignore the substantial decrease in likelihood that someone would take the firearm in that circumstance as compared to a situation with a more-visible firearm from a car parked on a public street or at a commercial business.”
One can easily relate to the deputies’ desire to seize the gun after a short, dangerous pursuit, especially considering Chavez was likely reaching for the gun when he leaned forward during the deputy’s initial approach. Perhaps the outcome would have been different had the deputies asked the girlfriend to consent to a search of the car or consent to seize the gun from the car. If the criminal history check had been available at the time of Chavez’s arrest, the gun could have been seized incident to an arrest for possession of a gun by a convicted felon. Alternatively, some states allow for seizure of vehicles on the basis that they were used to flee from police. Such a law would have provided an independent reason to tow and to inventory the car.
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.