On January 8, 2018, shortly after midnight, a sheriff’s deputy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, pulled over a vehicle driven by Manuel Chavez after he ran a stop sign. As the deputy approached the vehicle, Chavez appeared to reach for something on the floorboard before fleeing from the traffic stop. The deputy tracked the vehicle to a dirt road, approximately 200 to 300 feet in length, ending in a lone trailer amidst tall brush. The deputy discovered the vehicle, still running with headlamps on but empty except a small dog and what appeared to be a handgun in a holster.
The deputy called for backup, and another deputy eventually located Chavez lying face-down in a large pit on the property. Without giving a Miranda warning, a deputy asked Chavez if he was a felon, and he said “Yes, sir.”
Chavez was arrested, and the deputies began inventorying the vehicle’s contents to prepare it to be impounded. They took photos of the vehicle’s contents, including the gun, which Deputy Eric Castaneda then seized. During the inventory process, a woman exited the trailer, identified herself as the owner of the trailer and the vehicle, and stated she allowed Chavez to drive the latter. She disclaimed ownership of the gun, so Deputy Castaneda retained it.
Chavez was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and moved to suppress the all evidence discovered during the search of the vehicle, including the gun. During the hearing, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico made three findings: (1) Chavez had not “abandoned” the vehicle, (2) the deputies were credible in their assertion the firearm was in plain sight, and (3) the inventory search was reasonable, including seizure of the firearm, because there was “no evidence that [the deputies] acted in bad faith or for the sole purpose of investigation.” On appeal, the Tenth Circuit reviewed the parties’ challenges to these findings.
The Government argued that Chavez had, in fact, abandoned the vehicle and thus had no right to claim a Fourth Amendment violation. United States v. Garzon, 119 F.3d 1446 (10th Cir. 1997) (“a defendant lacks standing to complain of an illegal search or seizure of property which has been abandoned”).
However, all the cases offered in support of this position involved cars abandoned on public property. The Court distinguished the present case by noting that because Chavez left the car running, on private property and with a dog inside, the lower court was correct in concluding it was not “abandoned.”
As for the second finding, the Court found no “clearly erroneous” reason to challenge the lower court’s finding that deputies located the firearm in plain sight on the vehicle’s floorboards.
The case then turned on whether it was proper to retain the firearm after the inventory was abandoned. On this crucial issue, the Tenth Circuit disagreed with the lower court.
While an inventory search is generally reasonable when it is “made pursuant to standard police procedures and for the purpose of protecting the car and its contents,” United States v. Lugo, 978 F.2d 631 (10th. Cir. 1992), this search was not made according to standard procedures, the Court determined. According to the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office policy, “vehicles will not be towed from private property unless needed as evidence, or pursuant to a lawful court order.” Since neither circumstance was applicable here, the Court concluded the inventory search was unreasonable.
The Government tried to justify the seizure of the firearm under law enforcement’s “community caretaking exception” to the Fourth Amendment recognized in Cady v. Dembrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973). This doctrine was extended to automobiles by the U.S. Supreme Court in South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976), and to firearms by the Tenth Circuit in Lugo.
However, the determinative facts in Lugo (the firearm was seized from an unsecured vehicle parked at a service station) are materially distinguishable from those in the present case, the Court noted. In this case, the vehicle was on private property, largely isolated from passersby or thieves. Thus, the Court concluded that it was unnecessary to seize the firearm to prevent it from “fall[ing] into untrained or perhaps, malicious hands.” Id.
Finally, since Chavez’s admission about being a felon was thrown out for being in response to a direct question that was not preceded by a Miranda warning, deputies lacked probable cause to tie the weapon to its use in a crime to justify its seizure, the Court ruled.
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