©2012 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)
On September 30, 2011, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Glover [i] which serves as an excellent review of the constitutional law as it applies to the admissibility of evidence found during vehicle inventories. The facts of Glover are as follows:
On December 13, 2009, Chuwan Boros, an officer of the DeFuniak Springs, Florida Police Department was surveilling a Toyota truck in the Wal Mart parking lot because its owner, Caleb Andrew Glover, the defendant, was suspected of being involved in the robbery of a Winn Dixie pharmacy two days earlier. Boros checked the truck’s registration and discovered that although at some point in the past the truck had been registered, the registration had been “cancelled,” meaning that it was not registered to anyone. And the truck did not sport a valid license tag. When Glover exited the Wal Mart with his wife and younger brother and drove away in the truck, Boros followed and initiated a traffic stop. After obtaining Glover’s identification, Boros gave Glover a traffic citation for operating his truck without a tag in violation of Fla. Stat. Ann. § 320.07(3).1 Boros noted on the citation that this was a criminal offense requiring a court appearance. Boros also cited Glover for having no proof of insurance, in violation of § 316.646(1), and failure to produce proof of registration, in violation of § 320.0605 (neither a criminal offense).
Boros arrested Glover and placed him in the back seat of his patrol car. Since Glover’s wife was unable to drive and his brother was a juvenile, Boros and Lt. David Krika, Boros’s supervisor who had arrived on the scene, impounded the truck. A partial inventory search conducted at the scene pursuant to the police department’s inventory policy yielded a white mask similar to the mask worn by the Winn Dixie robber, a loaded machine gun and ammunition. A subsequent search conducted at the impoundment lot pursuant to a search warrant uncovered two firearms, ammunition, controlled substances, and items apparently connected with the robbery. [ii]
Glover was indicted in federal court for robbery and numerous other offenses based on the evidence obtained in the searches. He filed a motion to suppress arguing that his arrest was unlawful because originally he was not charged with a criminal offense under Florida law and that the evidence obtained in the inventory search should be suppressed because the impoundment of his vehicle was improper (as it resulted from an unlawful arrest). The District Court denied the motion to suppress, and Glover was convicted. He then appealed the denial of his motion to suppress.
On appeal, Glover’s first argument was that his arrest was unlawful because he was originally charged under Fla. Ann. § 320.07(3) which is a non-criminal violation. Only after the fact, was his original charge changed to a violation of § 320.02(1), which was a criminal offense. Thus, Glover argues, at the time he was arrested, he was not charged with an offense that was a criminal violation, thus the impoundment of his vehicle because his arrest was not lawful.
To begin its analysis of this issue, the Eleventh Circuit first examined rules that were relevant to issue. First, court of appeals noted:
A warrantless arrest without probable cause violates the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Lyons, 403 F.3d 1248, 1253 (11th Cir. 2005). Probable cause to arrest exists when a police officer has a reasonable belief that a suspect committed or was committing a crime, based upon facts and circumstances within their knowledge. United States v. Gonzalez, 969 F.2d 999, 1002 (11th Cir. 1992).[iii]
Next, the court noted that:
For probable cause to exist, an arrest must be objectively reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances.” United States v. Street, 472 F.3d 1298, 1305 (11th Cir. 2006) (quotation and ellipsis omitted). The officer’s own subjective opinions or beliefs about probable cause are irrelevant, because it is an objective standard. Id. [iv]
Thus, the standard for the court to use when determining whether an arrest is lawful and based on probable cause is an “objective” standard; this means that the court does not consider the officer’s own opinions at the time of arrest, but rather whether, viewed objectively, probable cause was present.
The court then stated:
When an officer makes an arrest, which is properly supported by probable cause to arrest for a certain offense, neither his subjective reliance on an offense for which no probable cause exists nor his verbal announcements of the wrong offense vitiates the arrest. United States v. Saunders, 476 F.2d 5, 7 (5th Cir. 1973).
In other words, as long as there was probable cause to believe the suspect committed a criminal offense, the arrest is lawful, even if the officer charged the suspect with the wrong offense.
Thus, in Glover’s case, the court of appeals stated that even though the officer charged him with a non-criminal offense, there was still probable cause at the time of arrest to support Glover’s arrest for a second degree misdemeanor, particularly § 320.02(1) (driving an unregistered vehicle). As such, the arrest, viewed objectively, was lawful.
The next issue was whether the impoundment of Glover’s vehicle was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
Before its analysis, the court first examined the constitutional requirements of vehicle impounds. First, the court of appeals stated:
In Colorado v. Bertine, the Supreme Court further explained that “[n]othing . . . prohibits the exercise of police discretion [in deciding to impound a vehicle,] so long as that discretion is exercised according to standard criteria and on the basis of something other than suspicion of evidence of criminal activity.” 479 U.S. 367, 375, 107 S.Ct. 738, 743, 93 L.Ed.2d 739 (1987). Even if an arrestee’s vehicle is not impeding traffic or otherwise presenting a hazard, police officers may impound a vehicle, but the decision to impound a vehicle must be made in good faith, based upon standard criteria, and not solely based upon “suspicion of evidence of criminal activity.” Sammons v. Taylor, 967 F.2d 1533, 1543 (11th Cir. 1992) (involving a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action for damages for unlawful impoundment and search of vehicle). Additionally, if law enforcement officials have the authority to conduct a valid impoundment, they are not constitutionally required to permit an arrestee to make an alternative disposition of his vehicle. Id. [v]
Further, the court noted that in Oppermann the Supreme Court articulated the three purposes for allowing vehicle inventory searches on vehicle being impounded. The court of appeals stated:
The Supreme Court had identified three distinct interests that justify the inventory search of an automobile: (1) protection of the owner’s property while it remains in police custody; (2) protection of the police against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property; and (3) protection of the police from potential danger. [vi]
Thus, in Glover, the court of appeals noted that the officer had no viable alternative to the impoundment of Glover’s vehicle. His wife admitted that she was not able to drive. Further, the impound and inventory search were conducted according to the police departments written policies, which is also a legal requirement. As such, the inventory was lawful and the evidence found during the inventory was admissible.
The court of appeals then affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] No. 11-10095, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 19955 (11th Cir. Decided September 30, 2011 Unpublished)
[ii] Id. at 1-3
[iii] Id. at 6
[v] Id. at 8
[vi] Id. at 10