from the mic-is-hot,-boys dept
One of the great warrant exceptions is the “inventory search.” Stop a car in a high-traffic or “high crime” area, and officers will feel compelled to tow it away. But before it’s towed, they’ll make a list of everything in the car to ensure the vehicle’s owner gets all of their possessions back when they retrieve it from the impound lot. If there happens to be contraband in the car, it’s a win for the cops. The “discovery” (even if derived from a mostly-pretextual search) will be called “inevitable” and can be used against the person to deprive them of their freedom along with their car.
This one simple trick usually works out for law enforcement. But every so often it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t work, it’s usually because officers were in such a hurry to carry out the warrantless search that they completely forgot about the pretext.
That’s the case here in the Tenth Circuit Appeals Court’s handling of a motion to suppress. The lower court denied the suppression motion, but the Appeals Court reverses [PDF] that decision, finding that the officers created an excuse to search the car, making their discoveries less than inevitable.
It all started with a call to the Tulsa (OK) Police Department about Evan Woodard. The caller said Woodward was in the middle of a drug case, may have smoked PCP, had three previous gun charges, and had violated a protective order. Tulsa PD officers headed out to find Woodard and serve him with an outstanding warrant for public intoxication and the protective order he was allegedly violating.
Here’s what happened next:
Police officers found Mr. Woodard in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at about 8:00 a.m. and initiated a traffic stop. Mr. Woodard pulled into a parking lot at a QuikTrip convenience store and stopped there. The police told Mr. Woodard to get out of the car, arrested him based on the warrant, and took his cellphone. Mr. Woodard then asked if he could call someone to pick up the car. One of the police officers responded “I don’t think so,” and the police decided to impound the car.
But it wasn’t that simple. The stop and search were captured on the officers’ body cameras, which caught them saying things that made it clear they were looking for an excuse to search the car, rather than performing a regular inventory in preparation for towing the vehicle from the convenience store parking lot.
One officer looked in the panel on the driver’s side door and on the floor under the driver’s seat, saying that Mr. Woodard was “fighting a huge drug case.” Defendant’s Mot. to Suppress, Exh. 4 (body camera). The other officer replied that Mr. Woodard liked PCP. As the officer replied, he opened the center console.
One officer commented that he was looking for verification of car insurance, expressing doubt that Mr. Woodard had insured the car. After seeing no verification in the center console, he eventually found proof of an old insurance policy in the glove compartment. By then, however, another officer had found marijuana, cocaine, a digital scale, and a gun.
Using this evidence — as well as some information from another traffic stop of Woodard in Bartlesville, Oklahoma that resulted in the discovery of drugs and a gun — officers obtained a warrant to search Woodard’s phone. Text messages recovered from the phone indicated Woodard was dealing drugs.
Prior precedent from this circuit restricts officers’ ability to impound vehicles, which, accordingly, also limits their ability to search vehicles without a warrant.
These heightened requirements allow impoundments from private property, like the impoundment of Mr. Woodard’s car, only when (1) the car is blocking traffic, (2) the car is posing an imminent threat to public safety, or (3) the impoundment is justified by a standardized policy and a reasonable, non-pretextual rationale of community caretaking.
The Tulsa PD’s impound policies comply with this precedent. As conceded by the state, officers can only impound a car if the vehicle is blocking the “public way” or, if the vehicle is stopped on private property, the traffic stop “follows an offense committed on the public way.” In this case, the stop didn’t follow a traffic violation. It was performed to serve a warrant and protective order.
Hence, the impounding and the attached search were unjustified. And the government’s arguments can’t change that.
The police stopped Mr. Woodard to serve a protective order and execute an arrest warrant for public intoxication. The protective order and warrant were pieces of paper, not offenses. The only offense was public intoxication, and the intoxication did not take place on a public way.
The government contends that Mr. Woodard was stopped for a continuing offense: failing to pay costs for his charge of public intoxication. But failing to pay court costs is not a continuing offense.
Plus, there were things said by officers that made it clear they were really interested in searching the car, rather than ensuring it wasn’t left on private property where it might have bothered the owner of the convenience store or been molested by an unspecified criminal element (based on the government’s contention the QuikTrip was in a “high crime area”).
While the government presented a long list of reasons it could have impounded the car (lack of proof of insurance, Woodard’s lack of a valid drivers license, concern over ownership, evidence of a crime, etc.), the officers stated none of these reasons before performing the search, nor after it. These reasons didn’t make an appearance until the search was challenged, indicating the impound was mere pretext for the warrantless search of the car.
Also indicative were statements like these:
Not only does every factor point toward pretext, but other powerful evidence of pretext exists. Before searching the car, the police officers discussed how to proceed and the senior officer declared his intent to “friggin’ light [Mr. Woodard] up with whatever we can.”
As the police started the search, one officer said that Mr. Woodard was fighting a big drug case and facing three gun charges. The other officer said that Mr. Woodard liked PCP, adding that he had been “digging around” the center console area, and the officer began his search there. Defendant’s Mot. to Suppress, Exh. 4 (body camera), Exh. 5 (body camera). These statements and actions showed the officers’ intent to look for drugs, not to safeguard the car and its contents
And the government couldn’t even come up with any plausible excuse for the first officer’s statement:
At oral argument, the government surmised that the officer might have meant only that he wanted to cite Mr. Woodard for whatever violations could be proven at the time of the decision to impound the car. This explanation is new and illogical. The explanation is new because the government never suggested in district court that this is what the officer had meant. The explanation is also illogical. The command to “light [Mr. Woodard] up with whatever we can” shows that the officer wanted to look for new evidence. The phrase cannot plausibly be interpreted to mean that the officer wanted only to bolster the public intoxication charge and serve the protective order.
The conclusion? The Tulsa PD is wrong and so is the lower court for approving these actions.
Because the Tulsa Police Department’s standardized policy did not apply and the stated rationale for impoundment was pretextual, the district court erred in denying the motion to suppress evidence of the drugs, digital scale, gun, and cellphone found in the Tulsa search.
With that evidence gone, so are the text messages taken from the search of the phone. Without those text messages implicating Woodard in drug distribution, the charges in the other stop in Bartlesville are reversed as well, leaving the officers with nothing but a couple of illegal searches.