©2018 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)
On January 17, 2018, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided United States v. Sanchez[i], in which the court discussed whether evidence obtained from the inventory of a rental car driven by an unauthorized driver complied with the Fourth Amendment. The relevant facts of Sanchez, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
On November 7, 2015, Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Jared Withers detected a black Dodge Avenger speeding eastbound on Interstate 70 near Green River, Utah. Trooper Withers stopped the speeding vehicle, driven by Defendant. Upon approaching the vehicle, Trooper Withers determined two passengers accompanied Defendant: Teresa Garcia, who occupied the passenger’s seat, and a toddler, who was lying in the back seat without any safety restraints. Trooper Withers explained the reason for the stop and asked Defendant for his driver’s license and vehicle registration. Defendant handed Trooper Withers a United States passport in Defendant’s name and an expired rental contract between Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Alexis Fernandez, who was not in the vehicle. Neither Defendant nor Garcia had authorization to drive the rental car and neither produced a valid driver’s license. In fact, the rental contract stipulated, “NO OTHER DRIVERS PERMITTED.”
After reviewing the rental contract, Trooper Withers asked Defendant to accompany him to his patrol vehicle for additional questioning. While in the patrol vehicle, Trooper Withers filled out a speeding citation and asked Defendant questions about the rental contract, Alexis Fernandez, and his intended destination. Although Defendant was not fluent in English, he was able to understand Trooper Withers’s inquiries enough to explain that he and Garcia were en route to Colorado for a week, that his driver’s license was suspended from a DUI citation, and that his friend, Alexis Fernandez, was in California.
While dispatch ran a driver’s license, warrant, and criminal history check on Defendant, Trooper Withers walked his narcotic detector dog around the rental car. The dog did not alert. Upon returning to the patrol vehicle, Trooper Withers received information from dispatch confirming Defendant’s DUI conviction and suspended driver’s license. Trooper Withers asked Defendant for his consent to search the vehicle, even providing a consent form in Spanish to ensure Defendant understood Trooper Withers’s request, but Defendant refused. Lacking Defendant’s consent to search the rental car but still hoping to uncover drugs, Trooper Withers turned his attention to Enterprise Rent-A-Car, the owner of the vehicle. Dispatch contacted Enterprise to inform the company that Alexis Fernandez—the only authorized driver on the rental contract—was not in the vehicle, to alert them the vehicle was five days overdue, and to ask what Enterprise wanted Trooper Withers to do regarding the vehicle. Since no authorized driver was in the vehicle and the contract only authorized the vehicle’s operation within California, Nevada, and Arizona, Enterprise determined the rental contract terms had been violated and requested the vehicle be impounded. Trooper Withers relayed Enterprise’s request and explained to Defendant and Garcia that the rental car needed to be inventoried before it could be impounded.
The Utah Department of Public Safety Policy Manual (UDPSPM) requires an inventory when a vehicle is impounded. See UDPSPM § 504.5. Upon impound, “a case number shall be assigned and a written inventory shall be made of the contents of the vehicle, the trunk and any open or closed package, container, or compartment.” Id. § 504.2.1. The purpose of the inventory procedure is to “protect an owner’s property while in police custody, to provide for the safety of officers, and to protect the Department against fraudulent claims of lost, stolen or damaged property.” Id. § 504.5. The inventory policy allows officers to make reasonable accommodations for a “driver/owner to remove small items of value or personal need (e.g. cash, jewelry, cell phone, prescriptions) which are not considered evidence or contraband” where removing such items “would not cause unreasonable delay in the completion of a vehicle impound/storage or create an issue of officer safety.” Id. § 504.7.
With the impound requested, Trooper Withers, Defendant, and Garcia turned their attention to the inventory search. When Garcia requested to remove diapers and other items for the child, Trooper Withers agreed but told Garcia to wait “a few minutes” while he returned to his patrol vehicle. Flouting those instructions, Garcia began to remove personal items from the back seat. When Trooper Withers realized what Garcia was doing, he shouted, “Hey! No . . . let me see what you are grabbing.” Following this exchange, Garcia placed one bag back in the rear seat, lifted the toddler out of the car, and retrieved items from the front seat of the rental. Critically, at no point did either Defendant or Garcia ask to remove personal property from the trunk or from the glove box.
Shortly after the exchange between Trooper Withers and Garcia, Trooper Withers began to inventory the contents of the rental car. In the trunk, Trooper Withers observed several plastic garbage bags filled with men’s clothing and a leopard print bag filled with women’s clothing. Trooper Withers found a large, square mass that he recognized as methamphetamine inside one of the plastic bags. Based on this discovery, Trooper Withers arrested both Defendant and Garcia and then continued to inventory the remainder of the vehicle’s contents. In total, Trooper Withers located ten packages of methamphetamine in the trunk. Trooper Withers completed the vehicle inventory in the glove compartment where he found two $1 bills and a straw that appeared to have methamphetamine residue on them. A tow truck arrived shortly thereafter to tow the rental car to an impound lot.[ii]
Sanchez was indicted for possession of methamphetamine under federal law, and he filed a motion to suppress the evidence. The district court denied the motion. Sanchez entered a guilty plea with the right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress.
On appeal, Sanchez argued (1) that the department policy violated the Fourth Amendment in that it authorized inventory of the property of vehicle occupants that were on-scene with the vehicle, and (2) Trooper Wither’s subjective motive of using the inventory to search for drugs invalidated the search under the Fourth Amendment.
Regarding the first issue, the court of appeals first noted that the policy does appear to authorize officers to inventory the contents of an impounded vehicle even when the property owner is present and available to secure the property. Sanchez argued that this policy violated the Fourth Amendment because (1) it does not further a community caretaking function, and (2) it does not allow a property owner who is present to maintain control of his property.
Regarding the community caretaking function requirement, the court of appeals stated that this function applies to a decision to impound a vehicle, not to the necessity to the conduct an inventory of the vehicle. The rationale for a vehicle inventory contained in UDPSPM policy is in accordance with the Supreme Court case of South Dakota v. Opperman.[ii] The policy states that the purpose of the inventory is
(1) to protect the owner’s property while in police custody, (2) to protect the police against claims of lost or stolen property, and (3) to protect the police from potential danger.
The court of appeals then stated that Sanchez did not explain, on appeal, how the inventory of his property was not justified by reasons two and three above. Additionally, the court observed that Sanchez never asked to take his property from the trunk of the car. Rather, Sanchez tried to argue that the police were required to ask him whether he wanted to remove items from the car before the inventory. Regarding this, the court stated
While giving Defendant an opportunity to remove the plastic garbage bags would have been possible, “the real question is not what ‘could have been achieved,’ but whether the Fourth Amendment requiressuch steps; it is not our function to write a manual on administering routine, neutral procedures of the stationhouse. Our role is to assure against violations of the Constitution.” Illinois v. Lafayette, 462 U.S. 640, 647 (1983). The Fourth Amendment simply does not require an officer to proactively ask an unauthorized driver of a car who does not assert ownership of items within the car whether the driver would like to remove items from the car before conducting an inventory. Such a rule would undermine the purposes that justify an inventory search.[iv] [emphasis added]
Here, the court of appeals noted that Sanchez failed to assert ownership of the bags in the trunk and take custody of the bags; as such, it was proper for the police to inventory the bags.
Thus, the court held that the policy complied with the Fourth Amendment, and the inventory was within policy and reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
The second issue the court examined was whether the trooper’s subjective intent to search the car for drugs violated the Fourth Amendment and invalidated the search. The court noted
An inventory search is invalid only if it is undertaken for the “sole purpose of investigation.”Colorado v. Bertine, 479 U.S. 367, 372 (1987) (emphasis added). “While mixed motives or suspicions undoubtedly exist in many inventory searches, such motives or suspicions alone will not invalidate an otherwise proper inventory search.” United States v. Cecala, 2000 WL 18948, *2 (10th Cir. 2000) (unpublished).[v] [emphasis added]
In this situation, while the trooper wanted to search the car for drugs, he impounded the car because Enterprise, the car’s owner, requested that it be impounded due to the fact that it was overdue, an unauthorized driver was in custody of the car, and the authorized driver was not present. After Enterprise requested the car be impounded, the trooper was required by department policy to conduct the inventory of the contents of the vehicle. Therefore, the inventory search was not the sole, reason for the search. The dual motive does not invalidate an otherwise lawful search, as this was lawful for the reasons stated above. As such, the trooper’s subjective intent to find drugs did not invalidate the otherwise lawful inventory search of the vehicle.
The court of appeals therefore affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
[i] No. 17-4000 (10th Cir. Decided January 17, 2018)
[ii] Id. at 2-5
[iii] 428 U.S. 364 (1976)
[iv] Sanchez at 9
[v] Id. at 9-10