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Idaho Supreme Court Announces Adoption of ‘Primary Purpose’ Standard for Reviewing Police Decision to Impound Vehicles and Conduct Inventory Search to Prevent Pretextual Searches in Violation of Fourth Amendment

by Anthony W. Accurso

The Supreme Court of Idaho overturned a district court’s denial of a defendant’s suppression motion, instructing on remand that the court determine whether the primary purpose for which the officers impounded the defendant’s vehicle was to conduct a search for contraband under the Court’s newly adopted “primary purpose” standard.

On October 21, 2019, April Dawn Ramos parked her car next to the restroom in the parking lot of the Tilden Boat Ramp to the Snake River in Bingham County, Idaho. Deputy Brock Katseanes saw her park the car, rummage through the trunk, then crouch near the driver’s side tire. On the assumption the driver needed assistance, he exited his patrol car, yet he found no one near the vehicle when he approached. The trunk was ajar, and the front windows were down, so Katseanes ran the plate, discovering that Ramos—whom he knew from previous encounters was associated with narcotics—had an outstanding felony warrant.

Katseanes summoned backup, including a canine officer to help locate Ramos. In total, five other officers would arrive on the scene, each inspecting the vehicle’s interior and trunk. Katseanes and Detective Dalley voiced their suspicion that the glove compartment contained drugs. Dalley asked what Katseanes wanted to do with the vehicle, to which he responded: “Well, I’m gonna say we’re probably gonna tow it because I’m sure we’re probably gonna find some narcotics in there. So, once we do that, then we’ll tow it.”

Katseanes and the other officers failed to locate Ramos with the assistance of the canine after a 20-minute hunt, and the dog also failed to alert for drugs when sniffing the vehicle’s exterior. The officers returned to speculating about possible contraband in the glove box when Katseanes offered that he believed “it’s in, uh, handicap parking too.” To which another officer remarked, they were then “obligated” to tow the vehicle.

After the tow truck was called, the officers searched the vehicle and located methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. The State filed a criminal complaint for unlawful possession of these, and in a pretrial motion, Ramos moved to suppress the search of the vehicle, arguing the impounding of the vehicle was done solely to allow officers to conduct a warrantless search for contraband.

The district court heard testimony from Katseanes, which made no mention of the vehicle being in a handicap accessible spot but rather focused on his claim that leaving the vehicle unsecured in an area known for theft would run afoul of the community caretaking function of the officers. Further, the windows were down, trunk opened, filled with personal property, so the vehicle had to be towed to secure it, according to Katseanes.

The State raised the issue of the car being illegally parked, and the district court judge recessed the court to go and view the lot in person. The court eventually denied the motion to suppress, finding the deputies rightly towed the vehicle because it was (1) illegally parked and (2) unsecured in an area known for thefts.

Ramos pleaded guilty but reserved her right to appeal. The Court of Appeals affirmed in an unpublished opinion, and the state Supreme Court granted review. Upon appeal, Ramos argued that the officers unlawfully impounded her vehicle and performed an inventory search as a pretext to conduct a criminal investigation.

The Court noted that warrantless searches of a vehicle run afoul of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and are per se unreasonable, unless undertaken pursuant to one of the “specifically established and well-delineated exceptions” to the general rule. State v. Lee, 402 P.3d 1095 (Idaho 2017). The prosecution bears the burden to prove the exception was warranted. State v. Hoskins, 443 P.3d 231 (Id. 2019). One such recognized exception is the “inventory search exception,” where officers may search a vehicle seized for impound. South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976); Caniglia v. Strom, 141 S. Ct. 1596 (2021).

The Court quoted extensively from State v. Weaver, 900 P.2d 196 (Idaho 1995), in explaining the inventory search exception: “When police have lawfully impounded an automobile carrying out their community caretaking function, they are permitted to inventory its contents. Such warrantless inventory searches, when conducted in compliance with standard and established police procedures and not as a pretext for criminal investigation, do not offend Fourth Amendment strictures against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Citing Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367 (1987); Opperman.

Continuing to quote Weaver, the Court added: “An inventory following impoundment is a reasonable and legitimate means to safeguard the owner’s property, to prevent claims against the police for lost or stolen property, and to protect the police and others from dangerous instrumentalities that may be inside the vehicle. [Bertine; Opperman; State v. Smith, 813 P.2d 888 (Idaho 1991)] However, the impoundment itself must be lawful. An impoundment of a vehicle constitutes a seizure and is thus subject to the limitations of the Fourth Amendment. If the impoundment violates the Fourth Amendment, the accompanying inventory is also tainted, and evidence found in the search must be suppressed.”

Notably, the U.S. Supreme Court has stated multiple times that “an inventory search must not be a ruse for a general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence.” Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1 (1990).

The Court then announced: “we hold that, where the ‘primary purpose’ behind the decision to impound a car is for the police to perform an inventory search in order to investigate their criminal suspicions, the impoundment and subsequent search violate the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Grey, 959 F.3d 1166, 1179 (9th Cir. 2020); United States v. Johnson, 889 F.3d 1120, 1126-28 (9th Cir. 2018); United States v. Orozco, 858 F.3d 1204, 1213 (9th Cir. 2017).”

Turning to the present case, the Court deferred the determination of whether the decision by police to impound Ramos’ vehicle was reasonable based on the “primary purpose” standard just announced. The Court then provided detailed guidance for the district court to follow on remand. (See full opinion for factors and considerations the Court stated must be analyzed.)

The Court expressly declined to “expand Opperman’s ‘community caretaking’ rationale to include potential theft or property damage to the vehicle as an acceptable reason to impound a vehicle,” in the absence of clear direction from the U.S. Supreme Court. Thus, on remand, the community caretaking justification cannot serve as the sole reason for impounding Ramos’ vehicle and associated inventory search, according to the Court.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court’s denial of the motion to suppress and remanded the case to review the suppression motion under the proper evidentiary standard. See: State v. Ramos, 536 P.3d 876 (Idaho 2023).  

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Related legal case

State v. Ramos

 

 

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