Friday, November 18, 2005
Ninth Circuit Overturns Ruling on Impoundment of Vehicle
Panel Revives Claim Police Were Unreasonable in Seizing Vehicle From Driveway After Unlicensed Driver Used It
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
Police apparently violated a couple’s Fourth Amendment rights when they seized their automobile from the couple’s driveway after observing the husband teaching the wife, who had no license, to drive on the city streets, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The court overturned a summary judgment in favor of the city of Cornelius, Ore. and the company that towed Jorge and Irene Miranda’s car. Cornelius, with a population of slightly more than 10,000 is located in the Silicon Forest, about 25 miles west of Portland.
Police said they seized the car pursuant to a local ordinance allowing them to tow any vehicle if they reasonably believe that the driver is operating it without a valid license. The actual towing of the vehicle took place about 30 minutes after the Mirandas returned from a brief drive around the neighborhood at a speed of about 10 miles.
The officer who called for the tow truck said he followed the vehicle because Irene Miranda was driving so slowly and so poorly that he suspected she was either impaired or unlicensed. He cited her for operating without a license and cited her husband for allowing an unlicensed driver to operate his car.
The Mirandas pled guilty to the violations, but sued under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983, claiming the seizure violated the Fourth Amendment.
U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken granted summary judgment on the ground that the Mirandas lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in their parked car on an unenclosed driveway.
But Judge Ronald M. Gould, writing for the Ninth Circuit, said the lack of a reasonable expectation of privacy does not bar the plaintiffs’ claim that the seizure is unreasonable, an issue never ruled on by the district judge.
Gould rejected the city’s contention that it acted reasonably under the “community caretaking” doctrine, which permits impoundment of a vehicle as a means of protecting public safety.
“The police’s authority to search and seize property when acting in its role as ‘community caretaker’ has a different source than its authority to search and seize property to investigate criminal activity,” Gould explained. “The reasonableness of a seizure under the ‘caretaker’ function differs from the bright-line rule concerning probable cause in the criminal context.”
The caretaker doctrine will generally permit an impoundment where a driver has been arrested, or is impaired or lacks a license, and thus cannot legally and safely remove the vehicle from a place where it would constitute a hazard or be exposed to theft or vandalism, Gould explained. But those considerations do not apply to a seizure from the owners’ driveway, so the officer’s reasonable belief that the Mirandas had violated the traffic laws was not enough to render the seizure valid under the Fourth Amendment, the judge said.
“An officer cannot reasonably order an impoundment in situations where the location of the vehicle does not create any need for the police to protect the vehicle or to avoid a hazard to other drivers,” the judge wrote, rejecting the city’s argument that it could impound the vehicle in order to prevent the Mirandas from violating the law in the future.
That rationale would extend the caretaker authority beyond the boundaries recognized by the Supreme Court, Gould explained.
“[T]he deterrence rationale is incompatible with the principles of the community caretaking doctrine,” which is designed to prevent immediate harm, the judge wrote. Nor would deterrence be an acceptable explanation for the police action in this case, he said, given that the Mirandas were still able to retrieve the car the next day by paying the towing fees.
The defendants, he added, can still offer evidence on remand that they had a legitimate governmental purpose for the impoundment.
Judges Raymond C. Fisher and Carlos Bea concurred in the opinion.
The case is Miranda v. City of Cornelius, 04-35940.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company