On May 1, 2020, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Neugin[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to the community caretaking exception to the requirements of the Fourth Amendment. The relevant facts of Neugin, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
Cherokee Nation Deputy Buddy Clinton was dispatched to a restaurant parking lot to respond to a verbal altercation between Mr. Neugin and Ms. Parrish. Their pickup truck was broken down. Deputy Clinton arrived and found Mr. Neugin sitting on the curb. Ms. Parrish was in the restaurant.
While Deputy Clinton and Mr. Neugin talked, Cherokee Nation Sergeant John Wofford arrived. He stayed with Mr. Neugin while Deputy Clinton went inside the restaurant to help Ms. Parrish arrange a ride. Ms. Parrish told Deputy Clinton she needed to retrieve her belongings, and Deputy Clinton accompanied her to [*3] the truck. Id. at 60. He and Sergeant Wofford stood at the back of the truck. Id. Deputy Clinton “had Ms. Parrish stand on the right” and “Mr. Neugin stand on the left” “so there was no interaction.” Id. Mr. Neugin objected to Ms. Parrish’s taking his grandmother’s jewelry. Supp. ROA at 7. Without asking, Deputy Clinton opened the lid of the “camper” attached to the back of the truck. ROA at 60, 68.1
As he opened the camper, Deputy Clinton looked inside and saw “a large bucket containing several rounds of ammunition.” Id. at 60. He asked who owned the ammunition, and Mr. Neugin said he obtained it from a deceased family member. Deputy Clinton set the bucket aside while Ms. Parrish continued to remove items from the truck.
Deputy Clinton requested dispatch to run a background check on Mr. Neugin, which showed Mr. Neugin was a felon. Deputy Clinton and Sergeant Wofford determined it was unlawful for Mr. Neugin to possess ammunition or firearms.
Deputy Clinton asked Mr. Neugin if he had a firearm, and Mr. Neugin said no. Mr. Neugin declined Deputy Clinton’s request for permission to search the truck, and explained he purchased the truck for Ms. Parrish.
Deputy Clinton asked Ms. Parrish whether Mr. Neugin had a firearm. She said he had [*4] a shotgun in the truck and had threatened her with it the evening before. Ms. Parrish told Deputy Clinton that she and Mr. Neugin owned the truck, and she consented to a search of the vehicle.
When Deputy Clinton returned to the truck, he saw the stock of a firearm protruding from under a suitcase in the back. He asked Mr. Neugin if the firearm belonged to him, and Mr. Neugin said he did not know where it came from. Deputy Clinton removed the firearm, which turned out to be a shotgun, and Mr. Neugin was arrested. The truck was impounded and inventoried.[ii]
Neugin was indicted under federal law for weapons violations. He filed a motion to suppress the gun and argued that the officer violated the Fourth Amendment when he opened the camper on the pick-up truck and looked in the back. There, fore, he argued the ammunition and the gun should be suppressed. The district court denied the motion and held the community caretaker exception applied. Additionally, the district court held the inevitable discovery doctrine also prevented suppression of the evidence because the vehicle would have been impounded and inventoried since it was broken down. Neugin pled guilty with the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. He then filed a timely appeal with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
On appeal, the court first noted that the Fourth Amendment typically requires a warrant based on probable cause. It also noted that there are exceptions to the warrant requirement. The court then discussed the community caretaking exception and stated
The community-caretaking exception allows the government to introduce evidence obtained through searches that are “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.” Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441, 93 S. Ct. 2523, 37 L. Ed. 2d 706 (1973).5 “Noninvestigatory searches of automobiles pursuant to this function . . . do not offend Fourth Amendment principles so long as such activities are warranted in terms of state law or sound police procedure, and are justified by concern for the safety of the general public . . . .” United States v. Lugo, 978 F.2d 631, 635 (10th Cir. 1992) (quotations omitted).
The government must also point to “specific and articulable facts which reasonably warrant an intrusion into the individual’s liberty,” and must show that “the government’s interest . . . outweigh[s] the individual’s interest in being free from arbitrary governmental interference.” United States v. Garner, 416 F.3d 1208, 1213 (10th Cir. 2005) (quotations omitted and alterations incorporated). Although officers are entitled to “some latitude in undertaking their community caretaking role,” their [*8] actions must be “reasonably related in scope” to the underlying justification. Lundstrom v. Romero, 616 F.3d 1108, 1123 (10th Cir. 2010); see also Garner, 416 F.3d at 1213 (explaining that the “scope [of a community-caretaking detention] must be carefully tailored to its underlying justification”).[iii]
When the court applied the facts of Neugin’s case to the legal principles above, the court held that the community caretaking exception did not apply. The court said that the deputy’s innocent motive of “trying to help” Ms. Parrish does not render the search legal under the community caretaking function. The court reasoned that the government did not show that “state law or sound procedure” warranted the deputy’s opening of the camper. Further, the court noted that the government did not demonstrate how opening the camper was needed for the safety of the community. The court reasoned that Ms. Parrish was capable of opening the camper and the deputy could have stood nearby; however, the government did not provide a reason why the deputy needed to open the camper. Further, the fact that the deputy had an innocent motive not related to law enforcement does not change the result because the Fourth Amendment looks at “objective reasonableness” rather than “subjective intent.”
Therefore, the court held that the community caretaking function did not apply to the deputy’s Fourth Amendment violation.
The court also considered the inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule. Regarding this exception, the court stated
Although a search may violate the Fourth Amendment, the exclusionary rule is inapplicable if the evidence inevitably would have been discovered by lawful means.” United States v. Souza, 223 F.3d 1197, 1202 (10th Cir. 2000). “[T]he government has the burden of proving by a preponderance [*10] of the evidence that the evidence in question would have been discovered in the absence of the Fourth Amendment violation.” United States v. Eylicio-Montoya, 70 F.3d 1158, 1165 (10th Cir. 1995). The government may carry its burden by showing that if police officers had not violated the Fourth Amendment, they still would have discovered the evidence through a lawful inventory search of the car. See United States v. Ibarra, 955 F.2d 1405, 1410 (10th Cir. 1992).[iv]
Thus, if the government can show that the Neugin’s truck would have been impounded, even if the police had not violated the Fourth Amendment, then it could be shown that the gun and ammunition would have inevitably been discovered during the inventory of the truck.
The court of appeals then examined the facts of the case and noted that the truck would not have been impounded if the deputy had not searched the truck in violation of the Fourth Amendment and discovered the ammunition and the gun. Specifically, the truck was on private property, in a parking lot of a restaurant. Neugin could have called his own wrecker. The vehicle was not a hazard such that the police needed to impound it. Thus, the court held the inevitable discovery exception does not apply.
Therefore, the court of appeals held that the evidence should have been suppressed.
[i] No. 19-7043 (10th Cir. Decided May 1, 2020)
[ii] Id. at 2-4
[iii] Id. at 7-8 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 9-10 (emphasis added)