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Tenth Circuit Rules Impounding Car Following Arrest on Outstanding Warrant Was Pretextual, Suppresses Evidence Discovered, Reverses Convictions

by Anthony W. Accurso

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ordered the suppression of evidence discovered during the impounding of a vehicle where the impoundment was for the sole purpose of searching for evidence of a crime.

Tulsa police received a call with a tip stating that Evan Jamon Woodard was “fighting a huge drug case, may have smoked PCP, had three previous gun cases, and violated a protective order.” Following the tip, officers also discovered an outstanding misdemeanor warrant for public intoxication.

Officers with the Tulsa Police Department located Woodard and initiated a traffic stop at approximately 8:00 a.m. He pulled over into a QuikTrip parking lot and stopped. Offices ordered him out of the vehicle, arrested him, and seized his cellphone.

Woodard asked if he could make a phone call to arrange for someone to pick up his car. One of the officers said, “I don’t think so.” They then began searching his vehicle. According to bodycam footage, the senior officer on the scene said the officers were going to “friggin’ light [Mr. Woodard] up with whatever we can.” During the search, officers remarked that Woodard was “fighting a huge drug case,” and that he “liked PCP.”

The search resulted in officers locating cannabis, cocaine, a digital scale, and a gun. This evidence provided probable cause to obtain a search warrant for Woodard’s cell phone for evidence of drug dealing. A search of the phone resulted in evidence used to support a charge relating to distribution of drugs.

A previous traffic stop involving Woodard in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, had yielded a firearm, ammunition, and a possessory amount of heroin, cocaine, and cannabis.

The Government indicted Woodard for possessing the cocaine and cannabis with intent to distribute, being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, and possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug crime.

Woodard moved to suppress the evidence located in his vehicle, arguing that his car was impounded merely as a pretext to search it, but the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma denied his motion. He was subsequently convicted at trial on all counts. He then appealed on the suppression issue.

The Court observed that upon the arrest of the driver of a vehicle, police must decide what to do with the vehicle, i.e., leave it where it’s parked, risking theft or vandalism, or impound it for public safety. South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976). Under the Fourth Amendment, impoundment from private property is permitted only when (1) the vehicle is blocking traffic, (2) the vehicle poses an imminent threat to public safety, or (3) impoundment is justified by a standardized police department policy and a reasonable, non-pretextual rationale of community caretaking. United States v. Sanders, 796 F.3d 1241 (10th Cir. 2015).

When a vehicle is impounded, police must make an inventory of its contents. United States v. Tueller, 349 F.3d 1239 (10th Cir. 2003). As such, police are permitted to determine what’s inside the vehicle prior to it being impounded. Opperman.

The Court cautioned that the power to impound a vehicle is subject to abuse. Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1 (1990). An example is when police impound a vehicle as a pretext to search it for evidence of a crime, the Court explained. Evidence discovered as a result of a pretextual impoundment generally violates the Fourth Amendment and must be suppressed. United States v. Sanders, 796 F.3d 1241 (10th Cir. 2015).

The Court noted that the district court based its denial of Woodard’s motion to suppress on the third Sanders basis for impoundment, viz., standardized policy and reasonable non-pretextual rationale of community caretaking. The Court observed that the Tulsa Police Department’s standardized impoundment policy permits impoundment when (1) the vehicle is on a public way or (2) vehicle is on private property when the traffic stop occurs after an offense committed on a public way. Woodard argued that the policy does not authorize impoundment of his vehicle because he didn’t commit an offense on a public way. The Court agreed.

The Court stated that the traffic stop was initiated to serve a protective order and execute an arrest warrant for public intoxication. These were “pieces of paper, not offenses” on a public way, the Court reasoned. Since no “offense” occurred on a “public way” for which Woodard was stopped, the Court concluded that the Tulsa Police Department’s policy doesn’t authorize the impoundment of his vehicle.

The Court stated that even if the policy did allow it, the impoundment in this case was pretextual. The Sanders Court identified five factors in determining whether impoundment is pretextual: (1) whether the car is on private or public property, (2) whether the property owner has been consulted, (3) whether an alternative to impoundment exists (especially the availability of someone else to drive the car), (4) whether the car is implicated in a crime, and (5) whether the driver or owner has consented to the impoundment.

Applying those factors to the present case, the vehicle was on private property, and the officers made no attempt to consult the property owner about leaving the vehicle. Woodard attempted to have another person pick up his vehicle, but the officers dismissed that as an option. The vehicle was not involved in a crime, nor did Woodard consent to its impoundment.

The Court concluded that, “[n]ot only does every factor point toward pretext, but other powerful evidence of pretext exists.” It then noted that the officers’ statements before and during the search “showed the officers’ intent to look for drugs, not to safeguard the car and its contents.”

The Court ruled that the evidence discovered during the search of Woodard’s vehicle as well as the search of his cell phone, which occurred as a direct result of the search of his vehicle, must be suppressed. Since the evidence necessary to prosecute Woodard for possession with intent to distribute drugs was based on evidence obtained from his cell phone, the Court ruled that all his convictions must be vacated.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the district court and remanded for further proceedings in accordance with its opinion. See: United States v. Woodard, 5 F.4th 1148 (10th Cir. 2021). 

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