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Tenth Circuit Reverses Denial of Suppression Motion Because Rationale for Community-Caretaker Exception Unreasonable

by Douglas Ankney

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado’s denial of Hunter Trey Venezia’s motion to suppress because the Government’s reliance upon the community-caretaking exception to the warrant requirement was based upon an unreasonable community-caretaking rationale.

Officers from the Lakewood Police Department (“LPD”) observed Venezia commit a traffic violation by failing to use a signal when turning. Venezia then parked his vehicle in the private parking lot of a local motel. The Audi was legally parked, not obstructing traffic, and not an imminent threat to public safety. The officers ran a check on the license plates and were informed the vehicle was registered to a Luis Cuello.

The officers approached the vehicle based upon the traffic violation and asked Venezia for his license, registration, and proof of insurance. Officers learned Venezia’s license had been revoked and that he didn’t have the registration, title to the vehicle, bill of sale, or insurance. Officers further learned Venezia had an outstanding warrant for failure to appear on a traffic ticket. When officers asked Venezia about Cuello, he indicated he had never heard that name. Venezia told officers he had recently purchased the Audi from a person named Dustin Estep. The officers attempted to reach Cuello by phone but were unsuccessful.

Officers arrested Venezia on the outstanding warrant and impounded the vehicle. Venezia objected to the impoundment, indicating that his brother was staying at the motel. The officers neither asked anyone working at the motel for permission to leave the vehicle in the lot nor did they check to see if Venezia’s brother would take possession of the vehicle.

After impounding the vehicle, law enforcement conducted an inventory search and found methamphetamine. Venezia was subsequently released on bond, after which he was able to establish ownership of the vehicle. He was charged with several counts, including possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. Venezia moved to suppress all evidence recovered during the search.

The district court concluded the impoundment was conducted pursuant to the LPD’s standardized, written policies, was justified by the community-caretaking rationale, and denied the motion. Venezia entered a plea of guilty conditioned on his right to appeal the denial of his suppression motion.

The Tenth Circuit observed “[t]he Fourth Amendment prohibits ‘unreasonable searches and seizures.’” To be reasonable, a search “generally requires the obtaining of a judicial warrant.” Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 373 (2014). “In the absence of a warrant, a search is reasonable only if it falls within a specific exception to the warrant requirement.” Id. The Government bears the burden of proving that the seizure and search were reasonable and that its impoundment of a vehicle satisfies the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Sanders, 796 F.3d 1241 (10th Cir. 2015). One recognized exception to the warrant requirement is a search or seizure conducted pursuant to police officers’ community-caretaking functions. Id.

In the context of vehicle impoundments in relation to the community-caretaking function, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that police may impound a vehicle in situations where the vehicle is disabled as a result of an accident, the driver cannot arrange for the vehicle’s removal, or the vehicle’s presence “constitute[s] a nuisance along the highway.” Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973). In Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367 (1987), the Supreme Court explained that police may exercise discretion to conduct inventory searches pursuant to a community-caretaking impoundment as long as that discretion is exercised according to standard criteria and the basis of the search is something other than suspicion of evidence of criminal activity.

Guided by these U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the Tenth Circuit had occasion in Sanders to clarify the precise standard for determining the constitutionality of a police-ordered impoundment on private property: (1) impoundments must be guided by standardized criteria, and (2) there must be a legitimate community-caretaking rationale. To determine if factor (2) is met, the Court identified five non-exclusive factors for determining whether an impoundment is justified by a reasonable, non-pretextual community-caretaking rationale: (i) whether the vehicle was on private property; (ii) if on private property, whether the owner of the property was consulted; (iii) whether an alternative to impoundment existed—especially another person capable of driving the vehicle; (iv) whether the vehicle was implicated in a crime; and (v) whether the vehicle’s owner and/or driver consented to the impoundment. Sanders.

In the instant case, the Court determined that the LMP’s inventory search satisfied factor (1) because it was conducted in accordance with LMP’s written, standardized policy governing such searches. But the Court concluded that factor (2) was not satisfied. Factor (2)(i) weighed against impoundment because the vehicle was on private property and not impeding traffic. Factor (2)(ii) weighed against impoundment because police did not contact anyone at the motel to determine if the vehicle could remain in the parking lot. Factor (2)(iii) weighed against impoundment because the vehicle could have remained in the parking lot until the owner of the motel complained or the rightful owner of the vehicle was contacted and removed it. Factor (2)(iv) weighed against impoundment because impounding the vehicle would not have produced further evidence of the crimes for which Venezia was arrested. Factor (2)(v) weighed in favor of impoundment because police were unable to contact Cuello whom they had legitimate reason to believe was the rightful owner of the vehicle.

Upon weighing the Sanders factors, the Court concluded that the impoundment was not based upon a reasonable community-caretaking rationale. The Court noted for instructive purposes that it wasn’t necessary to determine whether the “asserted community-caretaking rationale was … ‘pretextual’ … [because] the evidence of pretext is scant.” Rather, the Court’s ruling was based upon the fact the community-caretaking rationale for impounding Venezia’s vehicle was unreasonable.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the denial of the suppression motion and remanded with directions to vacate Venezia’s conviction and sentence. See: United States v. Venezia, 995 F.3d 1170 (10th Cir. 2021).

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United States v. Venezia



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