News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit limits use of community caretaking exception and inevitable discovery doctrine in Fourth Amendment case

In United States v Neugin, __F.3d__, 2020 WL 2091842 (10th Cir. May 1, 2020) (published), the Tenth Circuit limited the use of the community caretaking exception and refused to apply the inevitable discovery doctrine to a search of an automobile. Judge Matheson authored, joined by Judge Ebel. Judge Hartz dissented.

Facts: An officer spotted ammunition while lifting the lid of a truck’s camper; he ran a background check and the driver was a felon.

Officers responded to a domestic dispute between Mr. Neugin and his girlfriend, Ms. Parrish, that was taking place at a restaurant. While mediating the dispute, one officer, without permission, opened the lid of the truck’s camper to get Ms. Parrish’s belongings. In doing so, he looked inside the camper and saw a large bucket containing several rounds of ammunition. Officers ran a background check on Mr. Neugin, which showed that he was a felon. An officer asked Ms. Parrish whether Mr. Neugin had a firearm. She said he had a shotgun in the truck and had threatened her with it the evening before. Ms. Parrish consented to the search of the vehicle, and one officer saw the stock of a firearm protruding from the truck. It turned out to be a shotgun, and Mr. Neugin was arrested. Mr. Neugin pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, but preserved the suppression issues for appeal.

The community caretaking exception did not excuse the warrantless search.

The community caretaking exception applies only when an officer’s actions are warranted by (1) state law or sound police procedure, and are (2) justified by concern for the safety of the general public. The officer’s actions must also outweigh the individual’s privacy interests. Here, opening the camper wasn’t necessary to protect anyone, even Ms. Parrish. While the search was intended to facilitate the retrieval of Ms. Parrish’s belongings from the scene of the dispute, an officer’s “benign motive” is not enough, and the search was not “de minimis.”

The inevitable discovery doctrine didn’t apply because there would have been no reason to impound the car absent the warrantless search that led to Mr. Neugin’s arrest.

The government argued that even if opening the camper was unconstitutional, the evidence should not have been suppressed because the truck inevitably would have been impounded and searched. The Tenth Circuit disagreed. Instead, the Court reasoned that, if officers had not opened the camper, they wouldn’t have necessarily seen the ammunition, run a criminal history check, or found the gun. Without the violation, therefore, Mr. Neugin would not inevitably have been arrested. And without the arrest, the truck would not inevitably have been impounded and searched. Even though the truck was broken down, Mr. Neugin could have called his own towing company or a mechanic.

Notes from the notes.

Some other key points appear in footnotes, but are worth noting.

  • The plain-view exception did not apply because the officer was not lawfully positioned when he found the ammunition.
  • The officer could not rely on Ms. Parrish’s consent to search because any consent came after the warrantless search that uncovered the ammunition.
  • The automobile exception didn’t apply because the officer did not have probable cause to believe that contraband would be found inside. 

Hartz dissents.

Judge Hartz would have affirmed the district court’s decision that the community caretaking exception applied. He reasoned that the community caretaking exception extended to the officers’ attempts to keep the disputing couple under control and keep an eye on Ms. Parrish while she retrieved her belongings from the truck. He thus thought it was proper for the officer to lift the lid of the camper shell, so as to mediate any further argument.

Key Takeaways

The community caretaking exception is limited. Non-investigatory searches of automobiles under the community caretaking function are only justified if warranted by state law or sound police procedure, and are justified by concern for the safety of the general public.

Use this case for its good language on inevitable discovery. The Court reaffirms that “the inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule cannot be invoked because of [a] highly speculative assumption of ‘inevitability.’” United States v. Owens, 782 F.2d 146, 153 (10th Cir. 1986).

Author: COFPD

Federal Public Defender's Office for the Districts of Colorado and Wyoming