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A Night To Remember

Wisconsin Supreme Court: Officers Wrongly Inventoried Vehicle for Towing, Requiring Suppression of Evidence

by Anthony Accurso

The Supreme Court of Wisconsin held that the Court of Appeals erred when it affirmed the denial of a suppression motion because officers were not acting in their role as “community caretakers” when they inventoried a defendant’s vehicle for towing following a traffic stop.

Alfonso Lorenzo Brooks was pulled over for driving no less than 15 mph over the speed limit late one summer night in 2014. He exited the freeway and legally parked in a mixed commercial and residential neighborhood where, during the stop, the sheriff’s deputies ascertained that his driver’s license had been suspended. As they were issuing him citations for speeding and driving on a suspended license, they informed him that they were required to have his vehicle towed because he could not legally drive.

Brooks protested, saying that the vehicle belonged to his girlfriend and that she would arrive shortly to obtain the vehicle. The deputies said they could not allow an additional non-official person at the scene of a traffic stop, and they began a tow inventory search on the vehicle. They discovered a firearm in the trunk area and then promptly arrested Brooks for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Brooks filed a motion to suppress the evidence recovered during the search of his vehicle on the grounds that the search violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because there was no legitimate reason to tow the vehicle. His motion was denied, after which he pleaded guilty and was sentenced.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals held, in an unpublished opinion, that the officers were acting under the “community caretaker” exemption to the Fourth Amendment and upheld the circuit court’s denial of his suppression motion.

The Supreme Court of Wisconsin considered whether the “community caretaker doctrine authorizes law enforcement officers to seize a vehicle without a warrant when, subsequent to a traffic stop, they discover the driver and sole occupant of the vehicle does not have a valid driver’s license.”

Because the Fourth Amendment prevents “unreasonable” searches and seizures, “the warrant requirement is subject to certain exceptions.” Brigham City, Utah v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398 (2006). One of those exceptions involves law enforcement performing “community caretaking” functions. State v. Asboth, 898 N.W.2d 541 (Wis. 2017).

The Court first decided that two separate “seizures” had occurred. The first was when Brooks was pulled over and received two citations. This seizure ended when he was informed he could merely be ticketed and released. The second began when officers performed the tow inventory. As the first seizure was ending, it could not justify the second. And “[b]ecause there is a presumption against warrantless seizures, the State bears the burden of proving the community caretaker doctrine justified seizure of the vehicle Brooks was driving.” See State v. Payano-Roman, 714 N.W.2d 548 (Wis. 2006).

In the community caretaking role, officers may act “[t]o permit the uninterrupted flow of traffic and in some circumstances to preserve evidence, disabled or damaged vehicles will often be removed from the highways or streets at the behest of police engaged solely in caretaking and traffic-control activities.” South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976).

The State claimed officers needed to tow the vehicle, so it was not “unattended for an unanticipated amount of time” and thus subject to vandalism. The Court rejected this because, as Brooks was initially not under arrest, he could have protected the vehicle until its owner, his girlfriend, arrived.

The State claimed it was required to tow the vehicle under a duty to “reunite the car with its registered owner.” The Court also rejected this claim as “nothing about the situation suggested [Brooks] might not be in lawful possession of the vehicle” or that he could not return it after he finished borrowing it.

Next, the State claimed it was also under a duty to ensure “the efficient movement of vehicular traffic” because Brooks’ vehicle was “potentially impeding traffic along the side of the street.” However, as Brooks had contended the vehicle was legally parked and the State offered no evidence to the contrary, the Court found that the State failed to carry its burden of proving the reasonableness of the search. “Even now, the State’s most definitive argument on the subject is that the vehicle ‘potentially’ impeded traffic,” chided the Court. “And we will not base our analysis on speculation.”

The State lastly claimed that the towing and search were pursuant to policies of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department, though the State failed to articulate with which policy it was in accord. But even this were true, it still would not prevent the Court from conducting “a case-by-case application of constitutional requirements,” explained the Court. State v. Guy, 492 N.W.2d 311 (Wis. 1992).

Accordingly, the Court concluded that the State failed to prove the tow inventory search was executed as part of law enforcement’s community caretaking function, vacated Brooks’ conviction, and remanded to the circuit court to grant his motion to suppress the firearm as the fruit of an illegal search. See: State v. Brooks, 944 N.W.2d 832 (Wis. 2020). 

Related legal case

State v. Brooks

 

 

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