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).

News You Can Use: SCOTUS holds officers have reasonable suspicion to stop a car if the owner has a revoked license

In Kansas v. Glover, the Supreme Court considered the narrow question “whether a police officer violates the Fourth Amendment by initiating an investigative traffic stop after running a vehicle’s license plate and learning that the registered owner has a revoked license.”  Kansas v. Glover, No. 18-556, 2020 WL 1668283, at *2 (U.S. April 6, 2020). The Court held that “the stop is reasonable,” unless the officer learns “information negating an inference that the owner is the driver of the vehicle.” Id.

The case essentially came down to whether, in the context of an investigative detention based on reasonable suspicion, an officer can infer that the owner is the person driving the car, even though their license has been revoked.  An eight-judge majority concluded that inference was reasonable.

The majority began with the premise that it is reasonable to infer that a car’s owner is the one driving, and under the circumstances here, no evidence rebutted that reasonable inference.  “The fact that the registered owner of a vehicle is not always the driver of the vehicle does not negate” that inference because the “reasonable suspicion inquiry ‘falls considerably short’ of 51% accuracy.”  Id. at *3.  Neither does the fact that the owner’s license was revoked negate it because, according to the Court, common sense and statistics demonstrate that drivers with revoked licenses often continue to drive.  Moreover, under Oklahoma’s license revocation scheme, only “drivers who have already demonstrated a disregard for the law or are categorically unfit to drive” may have their license’s revoked. Id. at *4. Thus, it is not unreasonable to infer that they may continue to drive in violation of the law.

The majority rejected Justice Sotomayor’s concerns in her dissent that the Court was doing away with the requirement that reasonable suspicion be based an officer’s training and experience rather than data and probabilities.  The majority countered that officers may apply common sense, not only expertise, and that reliance on data-driven probabilities is wholly appropriate (although, relying “exclusively” on probabilities might not be).

Finally, the Court “emphasize[d] the narrow scope of [its] holding.”  Id. at *5. Not only is the holding limited to revoked licenses (as opposed to suspended licenses), but the inference that the owner is driving can be easily rebutted.  “For example, if an officer knows that the registered owner of the vehicle is in his mid-sixties but observes that the driver is in her mid-twenties, then the totality of the circumstances would not ‘raise a suspicion that the particular individual being stopped is engaged in wrongdoing.’” Id.

TAKEAWAYS

  • This decision does not change Tenth Circuit law.  The Tenth Circuit, in a decision by then-circuit-judge Gorsuch, has already held that an officer has reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle where a database indicates the owner does not have insurance, notwithstanding that the non-owner driver might be independently insured.  See United States v Cortez-Galaviz, 495 F.3d 1203, 1207-08 (10th Cir. 2007) (“[C]ommon sense and ordinary experience suggest that a vehicle’s owner is, while surely not always, very often the driver of his or her own car.”).  And, at least one district court has relied on Cortez-Galaviz to find reasonable suspicion to stop a car where the owner had their license revoked, which was the fact pattern in GloverSee United States v Wissiup,2013 WL 4430872, at *4 (D. Utah Aug. 16, 2013).
  • The holding is narrow.  Officers may stop cars if the owner has a revoked license, unless they have reason to believe that someone other than the owner is driving (for example they look different, or the non-owner driver shows their ID).
  • And the result appears to depend on the state’s particular statutory scheme. The holding is at least somewhat dependent on Oklahoma’s scheme allowing revocation for only relatively serious offenses.  Thus, in another state where revocation could be based on more minor conduct, an officer may not be able to infer that the owner is driving on a revoked license.