United States v. Neugin, 2020 WL 2091842 (10th Cir. 2020)
Officers responding to a domestic dispute in a parking lot found Jack Dewayne Neugin standing near a pickup truck. His girlfriend was in a nearby restaurant. She had told an officer she needed to get her belongings from the truck. While one officer stood on one side of the truck with Neugin, the other officer stood by the girlfriend on the opposite side.
The second officer lifted the cover on the bed of the pickup truck. His reason for doing so was not clear, though the dissenting judge opined that opening the camper cover demonstrated the officer was “in control of the situation” and that it was helpful to resolve the situation peacefully for the officer to be assertive. When the officer lifted the cover, he saw a bucket containing ammunition. At this point, the girlfriend told the officers there was a shotgun in the truck and Neugin had threatened her with it.
Neugin argued the officer’s action was not motivated by concern for the safety of the general public and thus not justifiable as community caretaking to “separate a feuding couple.”
Neugin denied consent to search the truck, telling the officers he bought the truck for his girlfriend. She consented to a search. When the officers found the shotgun, Neugin said he did not know where it came from. The officers arrested Neugin for being a felon in possession of a gun and ammunition.
Neugin asked the court to suppress the gun and ammunition. The prosecution argued the officer lifted the cover of the truck bed as part of a community caretaking action. Neugin argued the officer’s action was not motivated by concern for the safety of the general public and thus not justifiable as community caretaking to “separate a feuding couple.”
The majority held the act of opening the cover was a search that was not part of a community caretaking action. Thus, the evidence was suppressed. The court noted the girlfriend could have (and probably would have) opened the cover herself. There was nothing to suggest community safety was preserved by the officer opening it. Perhaps the officer was just being polite or perhaps he was searching. The court record left that question hanging.
Certainly, the officer could have stood by as the girlfriend opened the cover and seen the bucket with ammunition. That likely would have started a discussion about the ammunition and the shotgun. Neugin would still have been arrested when the officers learned he had possessed the shotgun at least as long as it took to threaten his girlfriend.
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