(CN) – Los Angeles police officers did not have legal cause to impound and search a vehicle in which investigators later found two kilograms of cocaine, the 9th Circuit ruled.
The federal appeals court in Pasadena found that the officers that stopped Jesus Antonio Ramos Cervantes in 2009 on suspicion of narcotics trafficking had no reason to impound and search his GMC Envoy, even though detectives had earlier in the day seen Cervantes place a box in the vehicle that they had previously observed being taken out of an alleged stash house.
When Cervantes drove through a residential neighborhood instead of taking more direct route, detectives figured that he was employing a counter-surveillance technique and determined to stop and search him. Officers in the field pulled Cervantes over for failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, and when he couldn’t find his license they impounded the vehicle.
At trial, Cervantes moved to suppress the cocaine, arguing that the search had been illegal. Presiding U.S. District Judge John Walter denied the motion in Los Angeles, finding that the impoundment and search had been legal under the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment. The exception generally allows police to impound a vehicle to prevent vandalism and theft, and for reasons of public safety.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed with a narrow reading of the exception, while also finding that a detective’s “observations regarding Cervantes’s benign travel tactics” and “conclusory statement about the box in Cervantes’s possession” were not enough to establish probable cause in the first place.
“Here, Cervantes argues that the community caretaking exception does not apply because the impoundment and subsequent inventory search of his vehicle was a pretext to search for narcotics,” wrote Judge Harry Pregerson for the panel. “We agree. We reach this conclusion based on the fact that Officers Sanchez and Colley stopped Cervantes’s vehicle at the direction of Detective Hankel, who was investigating Cervantes for narcotics trafficking. Officers Sanchez and Colley both stated that LAPD narcotics detectives had informed them that they were investigating suspected narcotics trafficking by Cervantes and that they were asked to assist with the investigation by conducting a lawful traffic stop of Cervantes’s vehicle. The happy accident of not finding Cervantes’s driver’s license — the existence of a valid license was confirmed shortly thereafter — cannot excuse the officers’ investigatory motive for the vehicle impoundment and inventory search.”
Writing in dissent, Judge Sandra Ikuta argued that majority had unnecessarily complicated a simple issue and had “silently overruled our long line of precedents establishing the community caretaking doctrine.”
“We’ve given police a simple, common-sense rule to deal with vehicles that are left unattended because the driver has been placed under arrest,” she wrote. “No complex legal analysis is required. The police merely have to determine whether it’s necessary to remove the vehicle from a public location in order to ‘prevent it from  creating a hazard to other drivers or  being a target for vandalism or theft.’ If the officers determine that either prong of this simple test is met, they may impound the vehicle in furtherance of their community caretaking function.”